John McCain is back.
In the six weeks since the end of a campaign in which he wholeheartedly promoted President Bush's reelection, the Republican senator from Arizona has wasted no time reasserting his independence from the White House.
Just two weeks after the election, he renewed his opposition to Bush's policy on global warming and urged action against greenhouse gases. He went to Europe and promoted a harder line against Russian President Vladimir Putin than the administration has voiced, and he returned home to take a harder line against steroid use in baseball than the administration had done.
Sen. John McCain
Then, last week, he took aim at Donald H. Rumsfeld, saying he had "no confidence" in Bush's defense secretary. "There are very strong differences of opinion between myself and Secretary Rumsfeld" on U.S. troop strength in Iraq, he said.
The highly visible stands by McCain have revived speculation that he will seek the White House for a second time in 2008. Aides say that McCain has merely been repeating long-held positions and that a decision on a presidential run probably will not be made for two years.
Still, McCain's advisers have been meeting privately to discuss a theoretical run in 2008, and they say his political action committee, Straight Talk America, will soon be restarted. Last month, he gave a speech in New Hampshire, the first primary state. And some believe it is just a matter of time until McCain's campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, returns.
"The bus is not yet out of the garage, but it is likely being tuned up," said Marshall Wittmann, who served as McCain's spokesman until last month, when he joined the Democratic Leadership Council.
Greg Stevens, who worked on McCain's television ads in the 2000 campaign, is hoping for another run. "My view is he has to look at it and take it very seriously," Stevens said. "I think he's in a very commanding position going forward."
The McCainiacs' optimism comes in part from the goodwill the Arizona senator earned within the Republican Party for his active campaigning for Bush this year. Winning the support of the conservative Republican primary voters -- those who allowed Bush to fight back McCain's primary challenge in 2000 -- would clear the way for McCain to win the GOP nomination in 2008.
McCain did more than 20 events for Bush, traveled with Bush on Air Force One, did television and radio ads and a mailing for Bush and attended two presidential debates. When there were rumors that Vice President Cheney would be replaced, McCain traveled with Cheney as a show of support. McCain, who noted that he was being asked to campaign with Bush "more than any other American," delighted delegates at the Republican convention in New York this summer when he said of Bush: "He has been tested and has risen to the most important challenge of our time, and I salute him."
The Arizonan's desire to win the support of the Republican base has occasionally conflicted with his own policy agenda. For example, McCain appeared at a fundraiser for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and helped several GOP Senate candidates, winning the NRSC's "team player" award. But after the election, McCain lamented that there were fewer votes for the environmental legislation he supports; some of those lost votes were from senators McCain helped to defeat.
Also, when campaigning for Bush this summer, McCain condemned the Swift Boat veterans group's "dishonorable" ad questioning Democratic nominee John F. Kerry's war record, and he urged Bush to do the same. But when Bush declined to condemn the ad specifically, McCain said he did not want to hurt Bush politically. "If I threatened him with some kind of retaliation, that obviously would have some impact on his reelectability," McCain said then.
It's far from clear that McCain has disarmed his opponents on the Republican right. The conservative National Review editorialized on Thursday that McCain was playing "Gotcha games" with his criticism of Rumsfeld and said "Republican-primary voters would do well to take early note."
But McCain, despite his recent criticism of Rumsfeld and of Bush's environmental policy, has impressed the Bush White House. Shortly after McCain very publicly made clear that he would not accept a vice presidential overture from Kerry, Bush's top strategist, Karl Rove, had coffee with longtime nemesis John Weaver, McCain's political strategist. Since then, Weaver has stopped advising Democrats (he left the GOP after the 2000 campaign), and Rove now calls McCain for consultations.
"John McCain did everything asked of him during the presidential campaign and more," said Mark McKinnon, Bush's advertising man. "He offered his unequivocal and vocal endorsement of the president at a critical time. . . . He offered to do anything, anywhere, anytime. And then did."
Now that McCain has restored some Republican support and is weighing a run for the Republican nomination in 2008, all but one of his top advisers from 2000 -- Michael Murphy, who also has ties to other prospective candidates -- have committed to helping him.
McCain's chief of staff, Mark Salter, cautions that "nobody, including McCain, knows if he's going to run again," but asserts that McCain's standing in the White House and the party has improved. "Everybody in McCain's world is getting along with everybody downtown," Salter said. "People react to that in the party."
McCain, 68, who reports no trace of the skin cancer he had in recent years, may be the best known of the possible Republican candidates for 2008, a field that could include former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, New York Gov. George E. Pataki, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sens. Bill Frist (Tenn.), George Allen (Va.), Sam Brownback (Kan.), Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.).
In the meantime, McCain plans to occupy himself as an unusual Capitol Hill hybrid: half point-man for Bush, half iconoclast. On issues where he agrees with Bush -- Social Security, tax-code and immigration restructuring -- he will aim to be a champion of Bush's proposals, aides say. On issues where he disagrees -- particularly global warming and budgetary restraint -- he will continue his role as maverick.
Whatever McCain's decision on 2008, Weaver said, the senator will continue to throw grenades -- occasionally aimed at the White House. "He never stopped being John McCain," Weaver said. "Even when we need a break, he doesn't stop."