By LIZ SIDOTI
The Associated Press
Tuesday, September 19, 2006; 9:28 PM
WASHINGTON -- Republican Sen. John McCain's standoff with the White House over treatment of detainees _ an issue the former POW knows intimately well _ threatens to exacerbate his already contentious relationship with conservatives.
"Maverick status is looked upon as a strength in Congress, but a maverick in the White House is not looked upon with great admiration from our folks," Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said Monday.
"Politically, this isn't wise," added the Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, which supports the president's call for Congress to approve tough interrogation techniques for terrorism suspects.
McCain, with his eye on a 2008 presidential bid, had taken steps to improve his relationship with conservatives, addressing a graduation class at Liberty University earlier this year at the invitation of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a former adversary.
The Arizona senator has been a staunch supporter of President Bush on the Iraq war. He has alienated conservatives, however, for opposing a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and supporting federal expansion of embryonic stem-cell research.
Social conservatives also have taken issue with his effort to overhaul the immigration system, in part, by granting millions of illegal immigrants a path to eventual citizenship, and his work with a rogue group of senators to avert a Senate fight over Bush's judicial nominations.
The warnings from conservatives over the detainee issue illustrate the risk McCain faces in taking on the White House _ alienating a base of support he would need to win the Republican presidential nomination.
As the clash escalated, McCain shrugged off suggestions that the dust-up could hurt him politically, telling reporters last week that his "credibility with the American people is that I do what I think is right."
Meantime, one of McCain's potential rivals for the GOP nomination, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has made it known that he supports the president's immigration position, saying that Republicans who have broken rank with Bush "made a big mistake."
Still, McCain could benefit by showing voters he stands alone and inoculating himself from future efforts to link him to the legacy of Bush, whose support in public opinion polls hovers in the low 40 percent range.
McCain advisers brush off the notion of long-term political consequences.
"At the end of the day, he's going to do what he thinks is right, and when he does that, it works out politically," said John Weaver, a senior political adviser for McCain. He added that when McCain doesn't hold true to that, it usually "blows up in our face."
Long known as a maverick, McCain's latest tussle with the White House is over the president's insistence that Congress allow the CIA to use aggressive methods against terrorism suspects.
McCain and a growing group of Senate Republicans contend the United States must adhere strictly to the Geneva Conventions international standards.
Bush wants Congress to quickly pass his own proposed legislation authorizing military tribunals for detainees and harsh interrogations of terror suspects. Last week, he singled out McCain, a rival for the presidential nomination in 2000, making clear whom he blamed for standing in the way.
A year ago, McCain led a high-profile charge in Congress to clarify a law against torture by extending it to also ban cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners. The White House issued a veto threat.
But McCain, a former Navy pilot tortured during nearly six years of imprisonment in Vietnam, attracted enough support in the House and Senate to override a veto. After a very public spat, the White House and McCain reached an agreement that essentially resulted in the senator getting what he wanted. Bush signed the bill in December.
Since then, McCain has resisted engaging in a public battle over how the administration has implemented the law, choosing instead to use back channels to make known his displeasure and negotiate with the Pentagon and the White House. That changed last week.
"We have an honest disagreement with some particular points of this topic," said Weaver, who characterized the relationship between McCain and the White House as excellent.
Over the past year, McCain's ties to the president have grown. Several of Bush's high-profile campaign strategists have lined up behind McCain, widely considered the front-runner for the GOP's presidential nomination though he has yet to formally enter the race.
Traveling in politically pivotal New Hampshire over the weekend, McCain again was the target of conservatives' ire _ this time because of his interrogation position.
The editorial page of the Manchester Union-Leader accused McCain of "blocking our ability to gain from terrorist captives the vital information we need to fight a war in which the enemy strikes us here at home from multiple locations around the world."
Sixteen months from presidential primary season, some Republicans believe McCain's latest haggling with the White House won't have lasting negative implications.
"In the long term, no one can hold a candle to McCain on national security issues," said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist. Plus, he said: "Strong poll numbers and a commanding lead in a presidential race allows everyone to forgive and forget."