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.
McCain advisers likened yesterday's speeches -- to the GOPAC political action committee and the Federalist Society -- to an address Reagan delivered in 1977 after the Democrats won the White House and GOP fortunes appeared to ebb.
Asked why McCain has joined the debate now, one of his top advisers, Rick Davis, said: "It didn't take a rocket scientist a month ago to say there's going to be a problem on Election Day, and we need to act quickly on that. Politics abhors a vacuum, and so do we. . . . Why not try to focus the party back on its core principles?"
McCain asserted before both conservative audiences that last week's elections were neither a setback for conservatism nor an affirmation of the Democratic Party's philosophy.
"I think they rejected us because they felt we had come to value our incumbency over our principles, and partisanship, from both parties, was no longer a contest of ideas but an even cruder and uncivil brawl over the spoils of power," he said. "I am convinced that a majority of Americans still consider themselves conservatives or right of center. They still prefer common-sense conservatism to the alternative."
McCain invoked President Theodore Roosevelt in calling on Republicans to take the lead in reforming the capital's spending and lobbying practices.
On lobbying, he said: "Let's ban all gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers and keep lobbyists off the floors of the House and Senate."
McCain said public frustration with the war contributed to the GOP's losses. "We're in one heck of a mess in Iraq," he said, "and the American people told us loud and clear last week that they are not happy with the course of this war. Neither am I. But let's be clear: That's the limit of what they told us about Iraq and the war on terrorism."
He said the United States has made "a great many mistakes in this war, and history will hold us to account for them just as the voters did last week." Defeat would be "a catastrophe," he said.
McCain has spent much of the year courting many of Bush's fundraisers and supporters and trying to reassure conservatives he is one of them, even if he has been at odds with them on some issues. He defended his participation in the bipartisan "Gang of 14" compromise in the Senate, saying that compromise helped ensure the confirmation of many of Bush's judicial nominees.