McCain's Stand On Detainees May Pose Risk For 2008 Bid

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By Charles Babington and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Sen. John McCain's bid to position himself as the natural heir to President Bush as a wartime commander in chief and to court conservative leaders in advance of his likely 2008 presidential campaign has threatened to run aground in recent days, as the two men clash over how to detain and try terrorism suspects.

For months, McCain has been wooing Bush's donors, hiring his former advisers and standing by him in the Iraq debate. But the fragile rapprochement between two men who were once bitter rivals for the presidency is facing a sharp new test over McCain's rejection of Bush's pleas to let the administration interpret the Geneva Conventions as it sees fit.

The impasse, which has preoccupied Congress this month, is likely to be settled within a few days but could remain hanging when lawmakers adjourn in a few days. Either way, it is likely to carry a long echo -- especially if the senator from Arizona forces Bush to back down.

Substantively, the legislative battle will shape what limits the administration will face on its anti-terrorism policies in the final two years of Bush's term. Politically, McCain's willingness once again to confront Bush raises questions about how he will position himself toward the Republican Party's conservative base, which he has aggressively cultivated over the past year as he pursues the presidency.

In a reprise of criticism showered on McCain during his 2000 campaign, some prominent conservatives are branding him a disloyal Republican and an unreliable conservative because of his assertiveness on the detainee issue.

The senator's actions "are blocking our ability to gain from terrorist captives the vital information we need," said a front-page editorial Saturday in the Union Leader of Manchester, N.H., the largest newspaper in the state with the first presidential primary. Conservative radio talker Rush Limbaugh said Friday that opposition to Bush's approach "is going to go down as the event that will result in us getting hit again, and if we do, and if McCain, et al. , prevail, I can tell you where fingers are going to be pointed."

If McCain or his backers worry that such pointed criticism threatens his presidential hopes, they do not admit it, calling the issue a matter of principle on which the senator has had a long record. But his camp acknowledges being well aware of the potential political ramifications.

For now, those ramifications remain uncertain. McCain's maverick style has long been popular with GOP voters in New Hampshire, where he bested Bush in the 2000 primary, said Andy Smith, a pollster who directs the University of New Hampshire's Survey Center.

"I don't think this impacts him too much in New Hampshire," Smith said yesterday. Polls consistently show McCain well ahead of potential Republican rivals there, Smith said, and the Union Leader's once-feared editorial page "is nowhere near as strong as it used to be."

McCain's defiance of the administration could prove particularly troublesome in South Carolina, the early-primary state where Bush's hard-hitting attacks in 2000 killed McCain's momentum and put the Texas governor on the road to the White House. Yet McCain's most outspoken ally in the detainee dispute is the state's senior senator, freshman Republican Lindsey O. Graham, who spent years as a military lawyer.

In a telephone interview from South Carolina yesterday, Graham said: "What I hear is, people respect the commitment of the president to the [CIA interrogation] program, and they respect my commitment and Senator McCain's commitment to the troops."

Graham added: "Every editorial in the state has understood Senator McCain's and my concerns, and believe they are legitimate." The Geneva Conventions say wartime detainees must be "treated humanely." Bush says the United States complies so long as CIA interrogators abide by a 2005 law barring "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment of captives. McCain and his allies say that the requirement is too narrow, and that they are concerned Bush's approach would invite other nations to interpret the conventions in lax ways that could lead to abusive treatment of captive U.S. troops.

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