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Lone Wolf McCain Cultivates GOP Pack

Times Staff Writers

Sen. John McCain, who made his name as a Republican maverick, is going mainstream.

Six years after the Arizonan emerged as George W. Bush’s nemesis in the bitterly fought 2000 GOP presidential primary -- and, in the views of some, ran against his party’s establishment -- McCain is taking a different tack as he prepares for a possible second White House bid.

Even as he has picked high-profile fights with Bush over military interrogation tactics and with congressional colleagues over pork-barrel spending, McCain has been quietly courting GOP power brokers, emphasizing his loyalty to the president and burnishing his conservative credentials on litmus-test issues.

McCain was nearly alone on Capitol Hill in defending the administration-approved ports deal involving a Dubai-owned company. He has eased his opposition to tax cuts that he once complained were excessive.

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He recently met with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a leading evangelical conservative whom he previously had denounced as intolerant. To the delight of GOP partisans, he publicly lambasted Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois -- a rising star among Democrats -- over an ethics and lobbying overhaul.

He is trying to build bridges to Republican leaders in key states -- such as Iowa and South Carolina -- that he ignored or lost in 2000. And on Friday night, he was a featured speaker at a Memphis gathering of more than 1,000 GOP faithful, where he reached out to conservative activists.

“We’ve learned from our mistakes and, if John does run, I think it’s clear he’s trying to be the leader of the party, not the leader of a movement,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who backed McCain in 2000 and continues to support his White House hopes. “You’re going to hear plenty of straight talk about the issues. But you’re going to see a man who is sensitive to the idea that this party is multifaceted and that the ... social and economic conservative groups are the heart and soul of this party.”

McCain is battling a stubborn piece of conventional political wisdom: that although he could be the GOP’s most formidable general-election candidate because of his appeal to independents, the party might not nominate him because of deep-seated mistrust he inspires among religious and social conservatives.

McCain, 69, antagonized that powerful GOP constituency in 2000 when he decried its influence in politics.

Despite his efforts to heal the breach, some activists remain implacable; they are urging social conservatives to quickly rally around an alternative candidate. Names mentioned include Sens. George Allen of Virginia, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Bill Frist of Tennessee, all three of whom addressed party loyalists Saturday in Memphis.

Frist won a straw poll of delegates Saturday night. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney came in second; Allen tied for third with Bush. McCain, who had urged a write-in vote for the president, finished fourth.

“There is some movement now to try to see who we might back,” said conservative leader Paul M. Weyrich, who is planning a meeting of like-minded strategists soon.

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McCain’s early maneuvering is important because the post-Bush Republican Party will be shaped not just by who runs for president, but by how the candidates run. If McCain builds his political base without making peace with evangelical and social conservatives -- and wins -- he will lead a Republican Party very different from today’s.

“Social conservatives presently enjoy unprecedented influence in the White House and most especially on Capitol Hill,” Weyrich wrote in a recent syndicated column.

He added: “A McCain presidency would likely change all that.”

McCain, the son and grandson of admirals, was a decorated Navy pilot whose plane was shot down over Vietnam, where he spent five years as a prisoner of war. Elected to the Senate in 1986, he had a relatively low political profile for many years. But after embracing an overhaul of campaign fundraising as his signature issue in the mid-1990s, he developed a national following.

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The parade of speakers in Memphis underscored the wide-open nature of the 2008 presidential contest.

There is no vice president or other heir apparent in the running -- an especially unusual situation for the GOP, which has tended to favor an orderly line of succession for White House nominees.

In recent polls of GOP voters, McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani were the favorites, but that could reflect little more than name recognition. Giuliani probably does not have much chance of attracting widespread conservative support, given that he has advocated abortion rights, gun control and gay rights.

McCain’s backers say an increasingly strong selling point for him among conservatives is that he would be the candidate best able to defeat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the early front-runner in the Democratic presidential race and a politician loathed by Republicans of virtually every stripe.

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“While [conservatives] know he’s not perfect, they think he’s most electable,” said former Republican National Committee Chairman Richard N. Bond, a McCain supporter.

McCain, who declined to be interviewed on his 2008 plans, has said he will decide whether to run for president after this November’s congressional elections. Meanwhile, he will travel around the country on a dual mission -- to help Republicans win election and to build his own political network.

“He’s doing what he would be doing anyway,” said John Weaver, McCain’s senior political advisor. “But we would be committing malpractice if we didn’t, as supporters, lay the groundwork and prepare for a potential candidacy.”

McCain’s speech in Memphis mixed his trademark blunt talk with a restatement of his credentials as a fiscal conservative.

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He began by reiterating his defense of the Bush administration’s approval of a ports deal with a United Arab Emirates company. After bipartisan protest, the company retreated from its U.S. plans.

“The president deserved better,” McCain said to scattered applause.

He elicited more enthusiasm when he complained of a lack of fiscal discipline in Washington and he endorsed Bush’s call for a line-item veto, a long-cherished goal of conservatives. Even without that restraint device, he said, lawmakers should have the willpower to rein in spending.

“One of the pillars of the Republican Party is those that believe in fiscal discipline and smaller government,” McCain said, prowling the stage with a hand-held microphone as he did in popular town hall meetings throughout his 2000 campaign. “We’ve got to go back to that. We have to make some tough decisions, and we cannot spend everything on anything that happens to come down the pike.”

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McCain closed with a harrowing tale from his POW days that held the audience in the darkened hotel ballroom in rapt silence.

Overall, the reception was warm, not wildly enthusiastic.

“There’s no question he has made progress in the last year in softening some of the animosity that remained from the 2000 election,” said Q. Whitfield Ayres, a veteran Southern Republican strategist, who heard McCain’s speech. “But he’s not over the hurdle yet.”

From Memphis, McCain traveled to Mississippi on Saturday to tour the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, part of a relentless schedule that has all the earmarks of a renewed drive for the White House. McCain is to appear March 20 in Beverly Hills to help Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger raise money. Next month, he plans to stop in Iowa -- home of the presidential campaign’s first contest -- to promote the gubernatorial candidacy of Republican Rep. Jim Nussle; in 2000, McCain skipped Iowa, and Bush easily won its caucuses.

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And in April, he is scheduled to travel to New Hampshire, site of the leadoff primary. McCain is politically well established in that state, where he beat Bush soundly in the 2000 primary.

His efforts on behalf of GOP candidates are likely to earn the gratitude of Republican officials across the country, much as he won White House plaudits by campaigning extensively for the president’s reelection in 2004.

His supporters also like to emphasize that his muchpublicized breaks with Bush -- such as his successful push late last year for legislation to ban the torture of terrorist suspects in U.S. custody -- mask a solidly conservative voting record on most issues.

He opposes abortion and has supported big defense budgets, restraints in other government spending, and pro-business legislation.

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In Memphis, he offered unstinting support for the war in Iraq, telling the audience: “It’s gonna be long. It’s gonna be hard. It’s gonna be tough. We must stay this course.”

He voted last year for a bill to protect gun manufacturers from liability lawsuits, a priority of the National Rifle Assn. He endorsed teaching “intelligent design” concepts along with evolution in public schools. He is supporting an Arizona constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

But his departures from party orthodoxy remain hard for some Republicans to swallow.

Most notable is his drive to ban large contributions to political parties. His campaign finance bill, which became law in 2002, was strongly opposed by Bush and other conservatives because they believed it would put the party at a fundraising disadvantage.

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And legislation he is sponsoring with liberal icon Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) would encourage illegal immigration, critics say.

The result: McCain has a steep hill to climb on his right. Influential televangelist Pat Robertson said last year in a television interview, “McCain I’d vote against under any circumstance.”

Conservative activist Grover Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform, is suspicious of the Arizonan’s recent embrace of tax cuts and other issues. “It’s like an alcoholic not drinking for a day,” said Norquist. “No one trusts that this is something he is going to stick with.”

McCain should have ample opportunities before the 2008 presidential campaign to show such GOP skeptics how strong his conservative credentials are.

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For many social conservatives, nothing may matter more than a Senate vote set for June on a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage -- a measure McCain has opposed on grounds that marriage policy should be determined by states.

“If he doesn’t change his mind and support this amendment, he will have a virtually impossible task to win the Republican nomination,” said Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest U.S. Protestant denomination. “There won’t be a social conservative in the Republican Party who [won’t] remember that.”

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Hook reported from Washington, Barabak from Memphis.

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