And They're Off!
John McCain wants to look like the inevitable nominee: so far, so good
CHARLESTON, W.VA.John McCain gazed longingly at his plate of baked chicken and penne pasta in white sauce but managed to devour only a few morsels before the first stranger arrived. One by one or in small groups, the well-wishers interrupted McCain's lunch with requests to shake his hand or share a snapshot. The silver-haired senator didn't mind. He remains accessible and loquacious, just as he was in his 2000 presidential campaign, in contrast to other candidates at his level, who are walled off by aides and bodyguards. He parlays all this-the likability factor-for all it's worth.
And it's worth quite a lot. "John McCain has made his reputation as a man who is outside the system, a guy who does things differently, who reaches across the aisle to the opposition, and people like that," says a senior Republican strategist. "People like his frankness. They know where he stands. And they think he would be a good guy to have a beer with." And that, in a nutshell, is why McCain is the early leader for the Republican nomination in 2008.
Blunt. The senator from Arizona wasn't hoisting any beers last week after the midterm elections. But he was typically blunt in assessing the Republican disaster. GOP leaders, he said, had departed from core party principles such as less government, lower spending, solid stewardship, and fighting corruption. The Bush administration, he added, had failed to send enough troops to Iraq to begin with and had falsely raised American expectations for a quick victory. Now McCain favors dispatching more troops in the "short term" to help Baghdad's government put down sectarian violence and stabilize the country. And he opposes setting a firm date for U.S. withdrawal, because, he says, that would only cause "chaos in the region" and embolden the terrorists.
Those views on Iraq seem to run counter to the nation's antiwar mood, but McCain has stayed true to his hawkish beliefs. And he has emerged from the midterms in good shape as the GOP front-runner for '08, in the view of many party professionals. For one thing, voters seem more and more attracted to the kind of independence and get-it-done bipartisanship that have been McCain's hallmarks in the Senate. For another, independents turned out in droves last week, and that's a good sign for a man who has always done well with swing voters and the unaffiliated.
"McCain is a formidable candidate," says Joe Lockhart, a Democratic strategist and former White House press secretary for President Bill Clinton. "He's the one guy out there who people don't see as a politician."
Yet McCain has also tried to demonstrate that he is a loyal party man. He attended 346 events and raised $10.5 million for the GOP and the party's candidates for the 2006 midterm cycle. On the eve of the election, in fact, Florida's Republican gubernatorial candidate, Charlie Crist, skipped a scheduled joint appearance with President Bush in Pensacola in favor of appearing with McCain in Jacksonville.
McCain, 70, knows that when there's no incumbent seeking re-election, Republican front-runners have a good chance to win their party's endorsement. Among the early front-runners to win the nomination were George W. Bush in 2000, Bob Dole in 1996, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Richard Nixon in 1968.