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

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Joined by virtually all 44 Senate Democrats, McCain and his supporters appear to have a solid majority in the 100-member chamber, where Bush's initiative is stalled.

From the moment the Supreme Court ruled in June that the Geneva Conventions cover U.S. detainees, the White House understood that McCain -- who was tortured as a Vietnam War prisoner -- would be the key voice on the issue. Bush aides hoped to persuade him to follow their approach. But they said they were not surprised when he did not, and in recent days they have been tempered in their comments about him.

"There's no question of motives that there may have been a couple years ago," said a senior administration official, who declined to speak for attribution about a powerful senator. "My sense is, this is paining him and this pains us. Neither of us wants to be in the position to have to do this and have it spill out into public."

If anything, the White House appears more irked by Graham, who Bush advisers believed had been supportive of their position until a few weeks ago. But the White House did not shy away from a fight with McCain, convinced that the politics would favor the president's side.

"They're not spooked by the opposition by McCain," said William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. "They believe they can win the issue legislatively . . . and if a few Republicans join all the Democrats, so be it." Although he professed respect for the senator for following his principles, Kristol said "it hurts McCain" politically because "it's just not where most Republicans are."

John Weaver, McCain's top political adviser, said it is possible the move will hurt his presidential hopes but added: "I don't see evidence of it so far, other than the armchair quarterbacking that we've experienced."

"When John does what he think is right, it usually works out in all ways, including politically," Weaver said. "When we take the expedient route, it doesn't work out."

Asked for an example, he cited the 2000 debate over public display of the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina. McCain initially called the flag "a symbol of racism" but softened his views, leading to accusations of waffling and pandering.

Nonetheless, a Republican strategist close to the White House said McCain risks alienating his primary base in the detainee dispute.

"The politics of this for him are pretty dangerous," said the strategist, who spoke anonymously to avoid antagonizing the senator. "This is an issue that's the most important issue to the Republican base overall, and they're strongly with the president on this."

The strategist added: "This is a manageable issue today. But I don't know that it's manageable if Congress leaves without doing anything."


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