McCain Fighting to Recapture Maverick Spirit of 2000 Bid

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 15, 2007

In the seven years since John McCain and his "Straight Talk Express" nearly derailed George W. Bush's White House ambitions, the blunt-spoken senator from Arizona has become the very picture of the highly managed presidential candidate he once scorned.

And along the way, he lost Stuart Hume and Mike Moffett.

The New Hampshire GOP activists counted themselves among McCain's loyalists in 2000, admiring his rejection of party dogma. But both men have turned elsewhere this time around.

"That had a real appeal, the maverick thing," said Moffett, a college professor from Concord and a Marine reservist. "He wasn't tied in, necessarily, with any conventional way of thinking. . . . His decades in Washington don't help him right now, with me or with many others."

Hume, a retired investor from New Castle, agrees: "I don't think people have the same impression of him now that they did then."

Their defections raise a question: Can the man who waged what Time magazine labeled "The McCain Mutiny" in 2000 do it again?

As McCain departs today on a five-day jaunt across Iowa and New Hampshire in his campaign bus (actually four buses, two in each state), he is hoping to regain the front-runner status that has slipped away from him and rekindle the insurgent spirit of his first presidential bid.

"It's very difficult to capture lightning in a bottle twice," said Tom Rath, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire and an adviser to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a contender for the party's presidential nomination. "The idea that you simply get on a bus, call it the 'Straight Talk Express' and do the things you did eight years ago -- I don't think even they think that works."

McCain's supporters say his reputation as a maverick is alive and well, sustained by his confrontations with Bush over torture policy, judges and campaign finance issues. They also say that he has made progress in courting the conservatives he angered with intemperate language during the 2000 campaign and with votes that often set him at odds with his party in the Senate.

"John will be the same candidate, unfiltered, no handlers between he and the voters," said John Weaver, McCain's top political strategist. "What's different for us" in this race, he said, is that "we have a strong national organization, deep roots into many states."

Appearing the insurgent will be no small task for McCain, given that he has aggressively courted the GOP establishment this time. His burgeoning campaign staff is filled with former Bush aides. He has lured more than 50 Rangers and Pioneers, the president's most generous donors. And the 70-year-old senator has become one of the most outspoken proponents of Bush's plan to send additional troops to Iraq.

The GOP presidential landscape is also very different. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has crafted a no-nonsense, take-charge image that has him leading in most national polls. And both Giuliani and Romney are campaigning as outsiders free of ties to Washington.

"Among Republican voters, Rudy has become the John McCain of 2008," said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who backed McCain in 2000 and is now supporting Giuliani. "Being the guy who's tough, independent, an iconoclast -- he is a newer version of John McCain."

Former congressman Vin Weber (R-Minn.), who publicly backed McCain in 2000 but is now working for Romney, said: "A non-Washington candidate seems to me to be very compelling, particularly for our party after eight years controlling the White House."

In New Hampshire, site of the nation's first primary, Moffett has signed up with Romney's campaign. Hume said he is uncommitted. In Iowa, which will hold presidential caucuses a week before New Hampshire's primary, Benton County GOP co-Chairman Loras Schulte said of McCain: "Washington does tend to morph people. I suspect that's part of his problem."

McCain's Washington friends are optimistic that he can retain the backing of his early supporters while building the kind of well-funded mainstream campaign that helped Bush prevail seven years ago.

"I'm mystified that people think it's a different John McCain," said former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, a friend of the senator's for three decades. "I just don't understand what being part of the establishment means. My sense is that people use that in a pejorative way. To say he's a maverick or establishment, frankly, I don't think either one does justice to who he is."

To back up their optimism, the senator's aides point to polls showing that nearly 60 percent of Republicans view McCain favorably. They also note that the senator has earned the endorsements of hundreds of officials.

But as McCain begins his second presidential campaign, the challenges continue to mount. He has been one of Congress's strongest defenders of a wildly unpopular war. In Giuliani, he faces a hero of Sept. 11. Conservatives remain bitter about his clashes with House Republicans over the past decade, skeptical about his record on taxes and suspicious about what they perceive as a lack of enthusiasm for speaking out on social issues.

The slide in the polls for McCain has occurred as public opinions about Bush and the Iraq war have soured. Nearly two-thirds of Americans disapprove of the president and the way he is handling the conflict.

McCain, meanwhile, has been steadfast in his support for both -- an indication, his aides say, of his refusal to conform his national security beliefs to the whims of public opinion. But that has put him in the hot seat, repeatedly defending Bush's Iraq policy almost as if it were his own.

"John McCain went from being the independent, reformist, change-oriented candidate to the biggest backer of George W. Bush at a time when Bush's approval is at an all-time low," said GOP pollster Frank Luntz. Republicans "have a choice," Luntz said, "and some of those people have chosen Rudy."

McCain's backers say the boomlet for Giuliani is a temporary phenomenon that will fade as Republicans learn more about the former mayor, particularly when it comes to his support for gay rights, abortion rights and gun control.

But even if conservatives ended up rejecting Giuliani, it is not clear whether they would turn to McCain, who has a long and rocky history with that wing of his party.

During the 2000 campaign, McCain lashed out at conservative Christians, calling television evangelist Pat Robertson and Christian broadcaster Jerry Falwell "agents of intolerance." In the years since, he championed a campaign finance measure, known as McCain-Feingold, that is fiercely opposed in some GOP quarters.

He has also teamed up with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), a liberal Democrat, on an immigration bill that many conservatives despise.

"It would have legalized and provided a path for citizenship, which is amnesty, for 66.1 million people," said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has called Kennedy and McCain "amnesty mercenaries."

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a longtime McCain ally, said his friend must work to convince conservatives that he will support their agenda if they help to elect him president next year.

"John's obstacle is, can he repair fences to people he's alienated for different reasons?" Graham said. "And can he convince people, contrary to what others may say, that he has a 20-year conservative voting record?"

And perhaps most important for his prospects, can he do that without losing the outsider appeal that made him a household name?

"A maverick, by definition, is relatively new. It's somebody who is outspoken and surprises you," said Frank Tilton, the GOP chairman in Belknap County, N.H.

A career Army officer, Tilton is remaining neutral. But he said he does not see people "jumping on the bandwagon" for McCain. "He's been a U.S. senator in Washington for eight additional years. He may not be right down the conforming line of thought, but he's still part of the establishment."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company