For Possible '08 Run, McCain Is Courting Bush Loyalists

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 12, 2006

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a man in perpetual motion, flew to South Carolina on Jan. 16. His stops included a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and speeches to local Republican groups. But one of his most important events was not on the public schedule -- a 5 p.m. meeting at a Spartanburg hotel with loyalists to President Bush.

A dozen or so people were in attendance. At least two were among Bush's major national fundraisers. Virtually all had been on Bush's side in the bitter 2000 South Carolina primary that badly damaged McCain's chances of winning the presidential nomination and scarred the relationship between the two men and their rival political camps. McCain was there to woo them.

"For people who were really strong for Bush, I feel like this was a dating meeting," said Barry Wynn, Bush's state finance co-chairman in 2000 and 2004 and a Pioneer for Bush both times, meaning he raised $100,000 for each campaign. "He's not quite ready to ask us to go steady. But I was a little surprised at the reaction, including my own reaction. I was much more positive than I thought I'd be going to the meeting."

With a 2008 campaign in the offing, McCain has begun an intensive courtship of Bush's financial and political networks. His recent travels included a December swing through the heart of Bush country in Texas that put him in front of many of the president's leading supporters there.

In 2000, McCain proved better at attracting independent voters than Republicans, and his success in overcoming doubts about him within his own party holds the key to his prospective candidacy. As Republicans look toward 2008 and worry about maintaining the White House, a streak of pragmatism has drawn them to look again at a man who often has been an antagonist of the president and party leaders.

McCain, who was not interviewed, will not make a final decision about running until after November, aides said. In anticipation of a likely campaign, he appears eager to reach accommodation with longtime GOP adversaries. He has undertaken the kind of practical steps necessary to enhance his chances of winning the nomination, focusing on organizations in states critical to winning the GOP nomination and building relationships with Republicans who rejected him in 2000.

There are many obstacles. Many conservatives, particularly social conservatives, still distrust him. His outreach to party insiders could threaten his appeal as a maverick. His mercurial personality could still cause problems with some of those with whom he has sought to mend relations. His age, now 69, could deter some voters; if elected he would be the oldest president-elect in history.

But recent events and McCain's record have coincided to make the Arizona senator newly attractive to many Republicans. After the scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Republicans are scrambling to associate themselves with McCain's image as a reformer. They also praise McCain for his role in smoothing the confirmation of Bush's judicial nominations.

McCain's upcoming schedule, which includes trips to New Hampshire, Iowa, Ohio, California, Florida, Minnesota, Arkansas and New Jersey, reflects the convergence between his political ambitions and his growing demand among Republicans. "The McCain brand in this environment is something people want, and they're breaking down the door of McCain's operation to get an appearance or an endorsement," said GOP strategist David Carney.

Fiscal conservatives, alarmed by the ballooning federal deficit on the president's watch, have been drawn to McCain as someone who says he can rein in spending -- though they remain suspicious of his commitment to tax cuts. "He's reaching out to all of us," said Mallory Factor, chairman of the Free Enterprise Fund. "He may not be winning converts, but he's making gains."

Most important may be the admiration McCain earned for his steadfast support of Bush in the 2004 campaign and his unyielding defense of the president's decision to go to war in Iraq. Despite a public quarrel with Bush over torture policy late last year, a number of Republicans loyal to Bush now see McCain as perhaps best positioned to continue the president's national security policies.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a McCain supporter who helped arrange the Arizona senator's South Carolina itinerary, called the confluence of events "gifts of the political gods," adding, "Nobody's going to get to the right of John on the war or spending."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company