McCain Prepares for '08 Bid With Appeal to Right

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 17, 2006

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took the first formal steps toward a 2008 presidential campaign yesterday and used a pair of speeches before Republican audiences to argue that his brand of conservative, reform-minded politics and hawkish foreign policy can restore the GOP to power.

On the day when he filed papers to set up a 2008 presidential exploratory committee, McCain served notice to rivals for the GOP nomination that he intends to move aggressively to put his stamp on a party that is rebuilding after losing the House and the Senate in last week's midterm elections.

The former Vietnam prisoner of war, 70, said voters punished Republicans last week for having become intoxicated with power. He urged a return to what he called the common-sense conservative principles espoused by President Ronald Reagan. "Americans had elected us to change government, and they rejected us because they believed government had changed us," he said.

McCain also defended his call for sending more troops to Iraq, a position that puts him at odds with the public and, so far, with President Bush and Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the head of the U.S. Central Command and the overall commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. "Without additional combat forces, we will not win this war," McCain said.

McCain cited Reagan frequently as the guidepost for the future of the party. In contrast, he never mentioned Bush by name, although he was implicitly critical of the administration's conduct of the war in Iraq. By choosing two conservative audiences for his first major post-election speeches, McCain demonstrated his desire to mend relations with the right, which helped deny him the nomination in 2000.

McCain's moves yesterday were the latest evidence suggesting that the 2008 presidential campaign will accelerate to warp speed earlier than in any other period in recent history. Last week, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani formed a presidential exploratory committee, and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) filed a statement of candidacy. Vilsack said he will formally launch his campaign later this month.

Other prospective candidates are moving quickly. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), identified by polls as the early leader for the Democratic nomination, said publicly this week she will begin to weigh a run for the White House. Last month, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said for the first time that he will consider running, and has been calling into New Hampshire and casting about for possible staff members in the event that he decides to run.

Many other Democrats are close to a decision, among them the party's 2004 presidential and vice presidential nominees, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.). The others include Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), Evan Bayh (Ind.) and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), as well as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

On the Republican side, outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been nearly as systematic as McCain in beginning to organize support in states -- such as Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan -- that will hold early primaries or caucuses in 2008. The McCain and Romney camps have been watching one another's moves closely, but the decision by Giuliani to set up an exploratory committee has complicated the strategies of both.

Other Republicans, including former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), outgoing Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, outgoing New York Gov. George E. Pataki and retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) have signaled that they, too, are weighing candidacies.

All are driven to move quickly in part by the formidable fundraising requirements of the coming campaign, which advisers to several prospective candidates said will mean raising $1 million a week during the next year for the most ambitious.

The demands of the primary and caucus calendar and the relatively crowded fields in both parties have also forced nearly all prospective candidates to start building staffs and engaging in the debate over the future of their party. Many spent much of the past year laying their campaigns' foundation.

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