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McCain Faces Payback From Old GOP Foes

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), long an antagonist of the GOP establishment, could face a gantlet from his old foes. "That latent hostility is there, and if these groups have a chance to ignite it, it's not going to go away," one adversary said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), long an antagonist of the GOP establishment, could face a gantlet from his old foes. "That latent hostility is there, and if these groups have a chance to ignite it, it's not going to go away," one adversary said. (By Scott Olson -- Getty Images)

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By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 14, 2008

Over the past decade, Sen. John McCain has annoyed, aggravated and nearly destroyed some of the most powerful members of Washington's Republican establishment, creating a list of antagonists including anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist and the vehement Gun Owners of America.

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Now, with his victory in the New Hampshire primary putting the Arizonan's quest for the GOP presidential nomination back on track, his old adversaries are mobilizing to keep him out of the White House.

"It is conceivable that he can be nominated because of the [primary] system we developed," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a longtime McCain foe. "It's not conceivable that he could come out of this nomination fight or the national convention with the kind of enthusiastic support he is going to need for the general election."

For at least eight years, official Republican Washington has been dominated by what McCain advocates have called President Bush's "Death Star" -- an array of advocacy groups and lobbyists that backed Bush in 2000 and have remained the city's conservative power brokers. Republican politicians with national ambitions genuflect to Keene at his Conservative Political Action Conference. They sign Norquist's pledge not to raise taxes and attend the weekly conservative conclaves over which he presides as the head of Americans for Tax Reform. And they curry favor with religious conservatives such as Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition.

McCain has not only declined to offer such gestures -- he's stomped on them.

Last year, he snubbed Keene and his conference, choosing to appear on David Letterman's show instead. In a nationally televised debate in November, he dismissed Norquist's pledge on taxes, declaring, "My record is up to the American people, not up to any other organization." He starred in advertisements on behalf of mandatory gun-trigger locks. And his investigation of felonious lobbyist Jack Abramoff in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee wound up painting Norquist and Reed as cash conduits who enabled Abramoff's predations, charges they have said are unfair and vindictive.

On top of that, his famous temper and expletive-laden tirades against fellow Republicans have long led opponents to question his suitability for the White House. One congressional GOP leadership aide said he could accept some of McCain's iconoclasm, but when the senator introduced legislation in 2004 to create a federal boxing commission, the aide began wondering why McCain thought he belonged in the party of small government.

"He almost seems to delight in going out of his way to stick his fingers in folks' eyes," said Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America.

Far from shying from the fight, McCain supporters seem to relish it. John Weaver, a longtime McCain adviser, said the senator's opponents long ago lost their power and influence, even if they don't realize it.

"Here's who John McCain has angered: self-described conservative lobbyists who basically represent special interests," Weaver said. "They're angry at him because he has put the national interest in front of their special interests."

And without doubt, McCain has split the Republican establishment. While some in Bush's 2000 campaign orbit actively oppose him, others, such as GOP lobbyist Charles Black, are major figures in his campaign. Victory, Black said, has a way of bringing people around.

"In three or four weeks, everybody will be for McCain," he said.

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