McCain's Rhetoric Goes Back to the Future

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) shakes a child's hand in New Hampshire.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) shakes a child's hand in New Hampshire. (By Brian Snyder -- Reuters)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 9, 2006

KEENE, N.H., April 8 -- There was no Straight Talk Express campaign bus, but almost everything else about Sen. John McCain's visit to the state with the nation's first presidential primary was familiar, from old one-liners to the overflow crowd at Keene State College on Saturday morning.

"It seems like yesterday," said the man with his eye on tomorrow.

But, in contrast to his 2000 campaign, the candidate who ran as a maverick and reformer arrived here in the unfamiliar role as nascent front-runner for his party's 2008 nomination, with questions and controversies trailing behind him. His appearances in New Hampshire came at the end of a week that symbolized the costs of McCain's current status as both party powerbroker in the Senate and a man who is attempting to repair relations with conservative constituencies that could derail his hopes for the nomination in 2008.

The McCain of 2000 found his voice as the outsider railing against a corrupt political system in Washington. The McCain of 2006 still attacks a system dominated by lobbyists, special interests and congressional earmarks, but he now finds himself buffeted from both left and right over steps he is taking to advance both his legislative and political priorities.

Last week, it was the immigration battle in the Senate, which pits the Arizonan against Republican conservatives, and a tempest over McCain's decision to give the commencement speech at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, which McCain's moderate admirers see as cravenly political. Together they framed his new and more complex profile.

"We're at a moment in time where there are two story lines with John that we've seen in the last several months," said John Weaver, McCain's chief political adviser. "One is that he's not conservative enough to win the Republican nomination. The other is he's increasingly becoming too popular among conservatives and, gosh, we don't like that."

When McCain arrived in the rain Friday afternoon, he was at the beginning of a seven-day tour through six states with the express purpose of helping Republican candidates raise money and boost their campaigns for what is likely to be a difficult election in November. But his itinerary underscored the dual nature of the trip.

It began with his first visit to New Hampshire since late 2004 and will end late next week with four events in Iowa, a state he skipped in 2000 but that his advisers know will be an important test if he runs in 2008. In between, he will campaign for candidates in Florida, Arkansas, Ohio and Minnesota.

He was introduced at a fundraising reception for Republican state Senate candidates Friday night in Concord as if he were the honorary president of New Hampshire, the state that launched his candidacy six years ago with a thumping victory over President Bush. One supporter told McCain early Saturday that he and many others still believe the better man won that primary. After opening remarks came the questions, and in typical New Hampshire fashion, they were pointed and sometimes hostile.

McCain sought to persuade skeptics that his approach to immigration is the only sensible solution, but the subject prompted more and sometimes more heated questions. "If you disagree with me, let me know," McCain said, and at both appearances, people did. One man complained of 11 million "parasites" driving down wages: "A criminal is a criminal."

"We have a respectful disagreement," McCain said.

McCain has also drawn heat over his decision to give the commencement speech at Liberty next month, after labeling Falwell one of the "agents of intolerance" in a campaign speech in 2000 that may have helped sink his candidacy. NBC's Tim Russert grilled McCain hard enough April 2 on "Meet The Press" that it prompted the senator to say at the end, "I haven't had so much fun since my last interrogation" as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show," an unabashed admirer, piled on a few days later. "Senator McCain, you're killing me here," he exclaimed.

The subject came up again Saturday when Silas Bennett, a student at Keene State College, told McCain: "I saw your response to Jon Stewart on 'The Daily Show,' and I did not think it was good enough. I'd like a real response to that."

McCain explained it this way: "Reverend Falwell came to my office, sat down in a chair opposite me and said, 'I want to put our differences behind us,' " he said, adding that he was long past the stage of holding grudges. Having agreed to put the past behind them, McCain added, does not mean he doesn't disagree with Falwell on some issues. He also said his appearance at Falwell's institution was no different than his appearance at the New School university in New York.

"The New School is a very liberal institution, which I have no criticism of, but it's a liberal institution," he said. "I haven't heard anyone aroused about me speaking at the New School."

Advisers say those who express disillusionment over McCain's gestures to conservatives and steadfast support for Bush on Iraq overlook a record that also includes besting the White House over torture legislation, a global warming initiative with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and the immigration battle. They also expect the Falwell controversy to fade after McCain votes this summer against a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage.

Still, these are questions McCain never had to worry about when he was running in 2000.

"I don't know that anybody questions who he is," Weaver said. "Some liberal pundits are questioning that. He hasn't changed. He's still as accessible as ever. He's still as frank as he's ever been. Lo and behold, they've discovered he's a conservative Republican who calls them as he sees them. That's who he's always been."

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