When Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi talked about John McCain in January, he didn't merely violate the GOP's 11th commandment; he spat on it. Cochran, rejecting Ronald Reagan's counsel not to speak ill of a fellow Republican, told the Boston Globe the idea of McCain as president "sends a cold chill down my spine. He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper, and he worries me." Cochran has clashed famously with McCain over appropriations. But infighting is not new for the man waiting to be crowned the GOP presidential nominee. For reasons of substance and style, during his 25 years in Congress, McCain has amassed a slew of enemies, but now, many are coming around—or lying low.
McCain is nothing if not a maverick. He has irritated GOP leaders, who couldn't count on his vote. He's worked hand in hand with Democrats on legislation—and, after his presidential run collapsed in 2000, reportedly toyed with leaving the Republican tent. By 2004, there was talk of him sharing the ticket with John Kerry. In addition, while he can exude charm, he can get in your face, too, and that explosive side—and sailor's tongue—cause trouble.
McCain was not Cochran's first choice for president (that was Fred Thompson) nor his second (Mitt Romney). But after the two men quit the race, Cochran picked up the phone to join the Arizona senator's team. "I think we're all encouraged that we may have a winner on our hands here," Cochran says. "We're all being nicer to him now. He's rising to a new level of leadership in our party and in our country, and he's due our respect."
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the GOP's No. 3 man in the chamber until he lost re-election in 2006 and a strong social conservative, can be counted as an old foe. He ticks off the issues on which McCain has strayed—among them campaign finance reform, a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and embryonic stem cell research. Santorum plans to vote for the man he calls "a friend . . . but not by any stretch of the imagination a close friend"; however, he's not sure his fellow social conservatives will help efforts to get out the vote.
One McCain ally, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, says it's the appropriators who often have crossed swords with McCain. Santorum agrees, saying: "Ted Stevens [of Alaska], Cochran, [Sen. Pete] Domenici—you can go down the list."
Others note that campaign finance reform, which McCain championed with Democrat Russ Feingold, makes him a thorn in the side of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
McCain's temper is also something that spawns enemies. In 1997, Washingtonian magazine dubbed him "Senator Hothead." Today, it's a touchy subject; the rare lawmaker who will venture an opinion—Cochran is one—insists McCain has matured.
Years ago, McCain insulted GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa by calling him "f - - - - - - jerk" during a hearing on POWs and MIAs. The two didn't speak for many months. Now, Grassley backs McCain and even cut him a $5,000 check.
McCain also has had fighting words for Domenici. Once during a spat over the federal budget, McCain called the New Mexico senator an "asshole." Domenici, too, is now on board.
Last spring, McCain shouted "F - - - you" to GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas during negotiations on immigration reform. Still, Cornyn skipped a day of votes in late February to stump with McCain before that state's primary.
Insiders say McCain apologizes, but bruised feelings can persist. Still, many of these onetime enemies are putting aside hurt feelings for the sake of the party.
McCain's team sounds weary of the topic. "McCain is a passionate person who has on occasion had some spirited debates," says Jill Hazelbaker, a spokeswoman.
Party faithful. Outside the Capitol, McCain has also ruffled feathers. One leading conserva-tive, Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, was a vocal enemy of McCain, slamming him in 2005 as a "gun-grabbing, tax-increasing Bolshevik." But now, Norquist says McCain's desire to extend the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 means he's behind him. "There are always reasons to criticize a candidate," Norquist says. "But if you have 30 seconds to talk about McCain, do you say he's good on tax policy or do you complain about McCain-Feingold?"
Aside from Norquist, it's unclear how robust his support will be among other Republican influentials like Rush Limbaugh, who, day after day, wielded a buzz saw on McCain just as the other Republicans were quitting the presidential race. Lately, the king of conservative talk has been urging listeners to prolong the nasty nomination fight on the Democratic side by crossing over to vote for Hillary Clinton in the primaries.
Richard A. Viguerie, an old guard of the conservative movement, was on hand when McCain addressed the Council for National Policy, which drew conservative opinion leaders to New Orleans in early March.
Viguerie thinks the nation's 400 or 500 top conservative leaders are, for now, lukewarm about McCain. "He hasn't reached out to us. He's trying to get our support on the cheap," he says. "The feeling is...the next step is up to McCain. We're waiting to see if he's going to reach out."
Viguerie says conservatives are closely watching McCain's choice of a running mate. He says some of the prospects being mentioned—Govs. Charlie Crist of Florida and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and former Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, who led the Homeland Security Department—don't cut it among conservative influentials. Likewise, they're not warm to McCain's one-time rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whom Viguerie said "had a late conversion" to conservativism. But he declined to say who would pass muster for the veep's job.
Viguerie says he and a host of others were disappointed at McCain's remarks at the conservative gathering, saying McCain sidestepped a question on whether he would appoint conservatives to key positions in his administration. "Personnel is policy," he notes.
Viguerie also says there's concern about McCain's potential judicial picks, saying Supreme Court nominees in the mold of John Roberts and Samuel Alito were acceptable but there's concern that McCain would be unlikely to nominate judges who would dismantle his campaign-finance law.
When McCain was asked at the conservative meeting about his faith, he hearkened back to his years as a prisoner of war and spoke about the faith of one of his Vietnam captors but not his own. The bottom line: "With few exceptions, conservatives are sitting on the sidelines or totally unenthusiastic," says Viguerie, who has a website, conservativehq.com, and runs a political advertising and direct-mail firm that helped launch the modern conservative movement.
Conservatives won't vote Democratic, he believes, but they may not be inclined to rally fellow conservatives and instead roll up their sleeves in congressional races.
Should he capture the White House, McCain would bring a raft of legislative experience. But political scientist James Thurber of American University points out that House moderates are growing scarce and that it effectively takes 60 votes to pass legislation in the Senate, so he doesn't expect consensus on major issues such as Iraq, immigration, and healthcare. "I don't see how he can reach over to the Democratic Party [while wooing] a very conservative Republican Party to get the winning coalition to pass these things."
Any new president has to worry about getting legislation passed, but for McCain, the challenge would be more difficult. He also has to worry about his old foes, some said to have long memories.