In South Carolina, McCain Seeks Reversal

The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 19, 2006; 5:29 PM

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Once a loser here, Republican Sen. John McCain desperately wants to avoid the same fate in this Southern state's primary _ a shellacking that marked the beginning of the end of his first presidential campaign.

The Arizona senator who ran six years ago against party favorite George W. Bush now is positioning himself as the establishment candidate and building a campaign he hopes will ensure victory in South Carolina, mindful that the state's GOP primary winners have always become the nominee.

"He obviously has learned from that experience," said the state's House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a Bush backer in 2000 who so far is unaligned for 2008. "He has been in South Carolina probably more than anybody else over the last year, and has been trying to line up folks who were the key Bush supporters."

Obstacles, however, stand in McCain's way, not the least of which are two potential rivals _ Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has a significant presence in the state and also is aggressively courting high-profile Bush backers, and the popular former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

More than a year before South Carolina votes in early February 2008, McCain also faces a lingering mistrust among some rank-and-file Republicans who voted for Bush in the bitter 2000 primary that raised questions about the senator's conservative credentials.

"We're programmed to hate McCain," explained Lisa Manini Sox, executive director of the state Senate Republican caucus. She couldn't pinpoint one reason for her opposition but cast doubt on whether she could be "deprogrammed." Added Katrina Shealy, the treasurer of the Lexington County GOP: "He's explosive. He's the Howard Dean of the Republican Party."

The senator's aides dismiss such comments as the griping of a handful. McCain's allies insist that many former Bush supporters are rallying behind him as they seek a candidate with a conservative record, a strong chance of winning the general election and solid national security credentials in the post-Sept. 11 world.

"He is the perfect man for his time," says Henry McMaster, South Carolina's attorney general and a McCain supporter. McMaster was neutral in 2000 when he was the state party chairman.

Back then, McCain _ an underdog courting independents and Democrats as well as Republicans _ won handily in New Hampshire before losing to Bush by 11 percentage points in South Carolina.

Stunned by the loss up north, Bush's campaign and the party establishment that supported him went after McCain, who was relatively unknown in the Southern state, raising questions about both the senator's positions and his character. McCain traded insults in what became a toxic battle, and his campaign never recovered.

Since then, McCain has sought to strengthen his standing among Republicans in South Carolina, the state of his close friend, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. McCain's efforts intensified this year in preparation for a presidential run.

In Washington, he embraced what he dubbed "commonsense conservatism," as his aides in South Carolina hired field organizers, courted grass-roots activists, distributed money to local candidates and secured endorsements from elected officials who previously stood with candidate Bush.

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