Sen. John McCain sought Saturday to quash rising speculation that he would bolt the GOP to challenge the man who defeated him last year for the Republican presidential nomination.
"I have not instructed nor encouraged any of my advisors to begin planning for a presidential run in 2004," McCain said in a written statement issued by his Washington office. "I have not discussed running for president again with anyone.
"As I have said repeatedly, I have no intention of running for president, nor do I have any intention of, or cause to, leave the Republican Party. I hope this will put an end to future speculation on this subject."
McCain's statement followed a report in Saturday's Washington Post, quoting unnamed sources, that the maverick Arizona Republican was talking about an independent run against President Bush.
Speculation about a possible McCain defection from the GOP was intensified by a visit from incoming Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to McCain's Arizona mountain retreat this weekend. The get-together, described as "purely social," touched off a flurry of questions about what it might mean for national politics.
As long as McCain continues to express disenchantment with conservative Republican orthodoxy and persists in teaming up with Democrats on controversial legislation, such as campaign finance reform and a "patient's bill of rights," he will probably continue to draw such speculation. That is especially true when McCain hobnobs with the likes of Daschle.
This week, Daschle is expected to take the helm as Senate majority leader after the formal switch of Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont from Republican to independent. The defection will tilt a Senate that had been split 50-50 along party lines, controlled by Republicans, to a 50-49-1 Democratic edge.
Although Daschle and other Democrats have reached out to McCain about the possibility of a party switch, aides to the two senators say that talk now has been put to rest. Daschle and McCain, they say, have been on friendly terms for years and were intent Saturday on relaxing with their wives at the McCain vacation spot outside of Sedona, Ariz. The visit had been planned for months.
The White House professed to be relaxed about the encounter as well.
"The president welcomes the meeting between Sens. Daschle and McCain and thinks that everybody in the Congress should get together with their colleagues," Bush spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. "It would help change the tone in Washington."
Daschle and his wife, Linda, a Washington lobbyist, were expected to stay at the retreat overnight. Bruce Reed, a top domestic policy aide under President Clinton who is now president of the center-left Democratic Leadership Council, was also at the retreat with his family. Matt Frankel, an aide to Reed, said the visit was simply a social gathering of "old friends."
The McCain retreat is a group of cabins in a valley along a remote road about two hours north of Phoenix. McCain spokesman Nancy Ives said the visitors might want to fish for trout in a nearby pond or enjoy hiking along hills or a shallow stream, perhaps to Zebra Falls. For dinner, McCain might grill up his favorite dry ribs on the patio of the main cabin.
McCain has entertained many politicians of both political parties at his getaway--among them Sens. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), Charles Hagel (R-Neb.) and, last summer, then-Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush.
As to leaving the GOP to challenge Bush in 2004, John Weaver, a McCain political advisor, said Saturday: "It has never been discussed with his friends, advisors, staff or strangers." Now that McCain has entertained Daschle, there will inevitably be questions about when he will get together next with Bush. The president and McCain had planned a dinner the week that Jeffords announced his Senate-shaking switch. They put the dinner off by mutual agreement because of the political tumult.