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John McCain: From Maverick to GOP Insider

In 2000, John McCain was the maverick candidate. In 2008, he aims to be in the mainstream.

Sen. John McCain
McCain was in Iowa on Friday to help out GOP congressional candidate Mike Whalen, right. (AP Photo)

The Arizona Republican emerged six years ago as a crusader against party orthodoxy, coming tantalizingly close to knocking off the pick of the party establishment -- George W. Bush -- in the 2000 presidential primaries. But as McCain looks to another presidential bid, he has systematically courted the same party powerbrokers he railed against in his first national campaign. And he has recruited many of Bush's key fundraisers and operatives and has made a point of standing by the president on a number of important issues despite Bush's lagging poll numbers.

No issue better exemplifies McCain's stalwart support for Bush than the war in Iraq. McCain has been a strong backer of the conflict since its start, a position he reiterated during a 30-minute interview with The Fix and The Washington Post's Dan Balz on June 29. (Download the McCain interview podcast here; read the full interview transcript here.)

"Most parts of Iraq have made real progress," said McCain, pointing to the relative peace in Kurdish areas and the turnover of military control in several provinces to Iraqi military forces. McCain is careful not to appear the wild-eyed optimist, however, adding: "This is the classic good news-bad news, two steps forward-one step back [situation]."

Despite his recognition of the challenges inherent in bringing order to Iraq, McCain rejects the idea of setting a date certain for withdrawal of American troops or even asserting that a timeline should be considered. Last month, he joined most Republicans (and a good number of Democrats) in voting against two resolutions urging just such steps, a firm deadline for withdrawal offered by Democratic Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and Russ Feingold (Wisc.) and a more measured proposal drafted by Carl Levin (Mich.) and Jack Reed (R.I.).

"All of us want to withdraw, but it has to be dictated by the conditions on the ground and I have been disappointed too many times to paint an optimistic scenario," said McCain. "We've proven in this debate that the American people are willing to 'stay the course,' at least at this particular moment in time."

When discussing Iraq, McCain speaks in something close to a monotone -- a serious tone for a serious topic; it's a far cry from the energetic call for reform he delivered on the campaign trail in 2000.

But every once in a while the fiery McCain emerges. Asked about optimistic comments made by Bush administration officials regarding the situation in Iraq (the most famous of which is Vice President Cheney's May 2005 assertion that the insurgency was in its "last throes"), McCain's voice rises. "I just wouldn't say it. I just wouldn't say it, that's all, I mean because then it opens you up to criticism when there is some setback. That's all. I just wouldn't say it."

That emotion is short lived, however, as McCain quickly added, "I don't tell the Vice President what to say."

Iraq is central to understanding how McCain's 2008 presidential candidacy will differ from his 2000 bid. During his first national campaign, McCain learned that leading a maverick movement is not enough to win the office he clearly covets. Over the past six years he has swapped his image within the party from a raging reformer to a serious statesman.

Many within McCain's inner circle insist that this is less a transformation than a simple correction of the image assigned to him by the media and the public in 2000. In that race McCain was cast as the moderate alternative to the conservative Bush. That idea was furthered by the courtship of McCain by John Kerry during the 2004 presidential race.

McCain, his allies argue, is at heart a conservative. They dismiss the idea that McCain's steady support for Bush is a strategic calculation to woo backers of the president. Instead, they cast that support as consistent with McCain's past record, though in a switch from past practice, the Arizonan now passes on chances to criticize the president that he would have leapt at a few years ago.

When Bush won the presidency in 2000 he promised to tame the relentless partisanship in Washington with his "compassionate conservative" governing philosophy. McCain admitted that "it's obvious that we have a very bitterly partisan divided government between Republican and Democrat," but said compassionate conservatism has achieved it goals of using faith-based and other private organizations to do the work previously handled by the federal government.

Although McCain has shown an increased willingness to toe the party line, he's far from the most loyal GOP footsoldier. McCain was one of only seven Republican senators to vote against a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in early June, and he has been a leading proponent of an immigration bill that includes a guest-worker provision, a provision opposed by many conservatives. On the latter, McCain said he still believes a comprehensive package is possible. "The one thing [Republicans in the House and Senate] are in agreement on is that the American people and our Republican base don't expect us to do nothing," he said.

McCain casts his work in the Senate not through a partisan lens but a practical one, pointing out that he has regularly worked with Democrats ranging from Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy to Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. "There's a long list of issues that I have reached across the aisle or had people reach across the aisle to me in order to try and address issues," he said.

Meanwhile, McCain is criss-crossing the country to support Republican candidates and expand his political network, maintaining a travel schedule that would daunt a man half his age. On the week McCain sat down for this interview, he had delivered a speech in California at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and stopped in Michigan to headline the Michigan Republican Party's Lincoln-Reagan Dinner. Minutes after the interview ended, McCain was on a plane to South Carolina. McCain, who will turn 70 on Aug. 29, would be the oldest president ever elected should he win the nation's highest office in November 2008. (Reagan was 73 when he won a second term in 1984.)

In addition to lending his public support to candidates, McCain's Straight Talk America PAC has raised better than $6 million so far in 2006, passing along better than $1 million to candidates across the country. And he has raised $3.5 million for candidates and state and national party committees. Occasionally, McCain takes sides in contested Republican primaries, such as his support for George Wallace Jr., who faces off against attorney Luther Strange in tomorrow's Alabama lt. governor primary runoff.

McCain's travels and his PAC donations are the most public signs of his 2008 aspirations, but his campaign in waiting -- led by political Svengali John Weaver -- has also been working behind the scenes to line up GOP establishment support. To date those efforts have met with considerable success; a number of major Bush-Cheney donors have signed up with McCain, and a number of influential elected officials -- including Sens. Trent Lott (Miss.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) -- are actively working on his behalf.

McCain said he will make no decision about the 2008 race until next year, but he made clear that he believes he is up to the challenge. "I think I'd like to be president because I think that I would, with a monumental statement of ego, I think that my life and my experiences and my abilities have qualified me to address the challenges the country faces," he said. He added that his decision will ultimately come down to whether his skills jibe with the "priorities of the American people and the challenges we face."

Should he run, McCain's priorities are clear: "I will do battle with the Democrats as hard and ferociously as I can where we have philosophical differences about the role of government."

But he's serious about bringing a more pragmatic approach to the nation's capital. "There is a dividing line, which always isn't static, between issues that deserve partisan debate ... [where] generally the majority rules, and those issues which are for the good of the country."

The McCain interview is available as a downloadable podcast here. The full transcript is available here.

Read The Fix's past Insider Interviews with potential 2008 presidential candidates:

* Sen. George Allen (R-Va.)
* Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.)
* Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.)
* Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.)
* Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.)
* Gov. Tom Vilsack (D-Ia.)

By Chris Cillizza  |  July 17, 2006; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008 , Republican Party  
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