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."

As the torture policy battle showed, McCain is not reluctant to challenge the White House, even as he reaches out to Bush supporters. Relations between the Bush and McCain camps have improved, but there is no assumption on the part of McCain advisers that Bush will lend him any direct support if he runs for president.

Two-Pronged Approach

McCain's activities, which have been shaped under the guidance of his chief political adviser, John Weaver, reflect overlapping political priorities. The first appears to be expanding his fundraising network, starting with Bush's Rangers (those who raised $200,000) and Pioneers (those who raised $100,000). He also has signed up John Moran, who was finance chairman for Robert J. Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.

The second underscores McCain's commitment to build or bolster political organizations in key states on the nomination calendar. He skipped Iowa in 2000 but cannot afford to do so again, and an April trip there on behalf of gubernatorial candidate Rep. Jim Nussle (R) will help establish a beachhead in that state. His New Hampshire team remains solid, and he has begun to attract supporters of the president.

No state is getting more attention from McCain than South Carolina, given the senator's loss there in 2000. With Graham's help, McCain has been systematically meeting with prospective supporters who were with Bush in the past. In November, he had lunch in Columbia with John Rainey and C. Edward Floyd, state co-chairmen of Bush's finance team in 2004. His team has reached out to Warren Tompkins, the state's leading Republican strategist who ran Bush's operations there. Tompkins said he is "genuinely up in the air" about 2008. Floyd, too, said he is far from committed.

Michigan is another prime target. McCain won the state in 2000, but Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) could be a threat there because of his family roots. Romney's father, the late George Romney, was governor in the 1960s.

"I'll be sitting having a cup of coffee and the phone will ring and it will be McCain," said Charles "Chuck" Yob, Michigan's GOP national committeeman. He described the senator as "a lot more conservative than a lot of conservatives give him credit for."

McCain has helped raise money for the Michigan GOP, and Yob returned the favor at last month's Republican National Committee meeting in Washington by helping to organize a private lunch for McCain with about 20 state party officials from around the country.

Strengthening Contacts

McCain's early strategy includes an effort to build links to party conservatives, or at least minimize their antagonism to him. He made an early endorsement of Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, who is running for governor; held a 90-minute meeting last fall with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, whom he had attacked during the 2000 campaign; and attended a private dinner with conservatives, hosted by the American Spectator magazine.

David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said that McCain's "chances are enhanced if there's not a crusade against him" among conservatives but that many conservatives still believe McCain is personally antagonistic toward them. "They think that, if he had his way, it would be a party without them," Keene said.

With Bush heading toward private life after 2008, McCain is building alliances in Texas. His four-day trip in December included receptions in Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Houston attended by many of the president's leading allies.

A principal organizer and hosts at a dinner for McCain at the San Antonio Country Club on Dec. 9 were former House member and lobbyist Tom Loeffler and his wife, Nancy. Both are longtime members of the Bush political family, but Loeffler also enjoys a close relationship with McCain, dating to their days together in the House in the early 1980s.

That relationship was interrupted by the 2000 campaign, when the Loefflers stayed loyal to Bush. Now they are enthusiastic members of the prospective McCain 2008 operation, and a few weeks after the Texas trip, each contributed $5,000 to McCain's Straight Talk America political action committee. "If needed, I'd wash bottles and change the tires on the Straight Talk America van," Tom Loeffler said.

McCain's host at a luncheon in Dallas was Tom Hicks, who bought the Texas Rangers baseball team from the president and his partners in 1998 and was a Bush Ranger in 2004. In Austin, former representative Kent Hance, a Bush Pioneer in 2004, gathered 38 people at his home on a Sunday night to meet McCain. Among them was Hance's next-door neighbor Joe Allbaugh, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Bush's 2000 campaign manager.

Without endorsing McCain, he said the GOP will need a strong candidate if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) is the 2008 Democratic nominee. "She's very political and a talent to be reckoned with," he said. "The Republican Party has to be as smart, as aggressive and political about the '08 nominee."

While in Austin, McCain, mindful that Bush and the current governor have not always been on the closest of terms and that sitting governors can be helpful in nomination battles, took time for breakfast with Gov. Rick Perry (R), the second private meeting between the two in a matter of months. McCain also met with former governor William P. Clements in Dallas.

From Texas, McCain flew to Florida for a scheduled book-signing in Jacksonville Beach. En route, however, he found time for a strategic stop in Tallahassee, where he had lunch with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R). Traveling with McCain that day was Mark McKinnon, Bush's chief media consultant, who already is signed up to help McCain in 2008 -- unless the president's brother or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice unexpectedly enters the race.

McKinnon is the only senior member of Bush's team to commit publicly to McCain, but others are interested. One strategist, who played an instrumental role in the 2004 campaign but did not want to be identified because he is still looking at 2008 options, said, "I thought he would be a contender and a good general election nominee, but a year ago I would not have thought I would be seriously considering being with him. Now I am."

Staff writer Charles Babington, special correspondent Chris Cillizza and political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.

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