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.
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.
Opponents concede the point. "In the Republican Party, there is an anybody-but-McCain group. And in South Carolina that vote is divided," said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a Mitt Romney supporter. "Anything can happen now because the votes are split so many ways."
Over most of his time in the Senate, McCain, now in his fourth term, has compiled a reliably conservative record, winning him supporters among social and economic conservatives. But in his White House bid in 2000 and the few years afterward, McCain managed to anger just about everyone in the GOP establishment that developed around Bush.
His battle to overhaul the way political campaigns are paid for and fought infuriated an array of interest groups that believed he was trying to muzzle them, especially with a provision that outlawed "issue" advertisements in the last days of campaign seasons.
His February 2000 speech calling Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell "agents of intolerance" and comparing them to Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton earned the enmity of some religious conservatives.
His votes in 2001 against Bush's first major tax cut, then in 2003 against Bush's second, made economic conservatives leery.
His work on behalf of mandating background checks on gun buyers at gun shows -- both in Senate legislation and for referendums in Oregon and Colorado -- won him enemies in the gun rights community.
His advocacy of legislation to combat climate change angered some business groups that not only argue against such mandates but also maintain there is no global warming.
And most recently, his support of legislation that would grant most illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship has earned him enmity from some of the staunchest conservatives in the country.
"I can tell you every single immigration activist and organization is terrified by the New Hampshire results," said Roy Beck, executive director of the self-described "immigration reduction" group NumbersUSA. "My day starts in the morning with a call from a talk radio station, and that's how the day ends. We're getting our message across, and I am taking McCain to task. It's no holds barred."
Perhaps most devastatingly, McCain's Abramoff investigation ensnared influential Republicans, uncovering e-mails that put Reed and Norquist under a harsh light.
"Call Ralph re Grover doing pass through," Abramoff wrote in an e-mail reminder to himself in 1999, a year in which Norquist moved more than $1 million in Abramoff client money to Reed and Christian anti-gambling groups.
Neither Reed nor Norquist would speak on the record for this story. Their defenders say such e-mails were taken out of context and deliberately leaked by McCain aides as revenge for their efforts to secure Bush the nomination in 2000. But the damage was done. Reed was trounced in 2006 in his bid to become the lieutenant governor of Georgia after his primary opponent hammered him on his Abramoff ties.
Now, the McCain camp expects payback. Already, Keene says, his organization is examining a loan McCain took out to keep his campaign afloat, trying to determine if it can be fodder for an attack. Immigration groups are mobilizing on talk radio and the Internet.
Other ideological foes have made their positions clear. Gun Owners of America, a smaller rival of the National Rifle Association, has gone after McCain on the Internet over his efforts to close the gun show background-check loophole.
"This year it appears he is seeking to 'come home' to the pro-gun community, but the wounds are deep and memories long," the group warns on its Web site.
Keene said, "That latent hostility is there, and if these groups have a chance to ignite it, it's not going to go away."
But the NRA has held its fire. "Some people have renaissance periods. He had his maverick period," NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said of McCain's gun-control activity. "When we make any determination, we look at a candidate's record in full, what they've done in the past, what they're saying now, what they'll do in the future."
McCain advisers do not appear worried. Unlike 2000, when surreptitious efforts to undermine the senator helped derail his insurgent campaign, 2008 lacks an establishment Republican candidate around whom McCain's adversaries can rally.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has attacked McCain over his battles with the GOP establishment. Recently, the Romney campaign released what it called a "Top Ten List" of off-color tirades that McCain launched against Republicans, including then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Sens. John Cornyn (Tex.), Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and Pete V. Domenici (N.M.).
Scott Reed, a Republican strategist not aligned in the 2008 presidential race, said he advised McCain not to "waste an ounce of time on these self-appointed leaders," since he has far bigger worries from his Republican opponents and from a strong Democratic field that lies in wait.
"No doubt some of the old archenemies are waiting in the weeds in South Carolina," Reed said. "But Republicans understand this election has some big stakes involved, and beating either Hillary or Obama is not going to be easy. The Republicans need someone with experience and judgment, and that's McCain's trump card."
Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.