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GOP Senators Reassess Views About McCain

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By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 4, 2008

John McCain once testified under oath that a Senate colleague inappropriately used tobacco corporation donations to sway votes on legislation. He cursed out another colleague in front of 20 senators and staff members, questioning the senator's grip on immigration legislation. And, on the Senate floor, McCain (R-Ariz.) accused another colleague of "egregious behavior" for helping a defense contractor in a move he said resembled "corporate scandals."

And those were just the Republicans.

In a chamber once known for cordiality if not outright gentility, McCain has battled his fellow senators for more than two decades in a fashion that has been forceful and sometimes personal. Now, with the conservative maverick on the brink of securing his party's presidential nomination, McCain's Republican colleagues are grappling with the idea of him at the top of their ticket.

"There would be a lot of people who would have to recalibrate their attitudes toward John," said Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), a supporter of Mitt Romney's who has clashed with McCain.

Many Senate Republicans, even those who have jousted with McCain in the past, say their reassessment is underway. Sensing the increasing likelihood that he will be the nominee, GOP senators who have publicly fought with him are emphasizing his war-hero background and playing down past confrontations.

"I forgive him for whatever disagreements he has had with me. We can disagree on things, but I have great admiration for him," said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee who has often argued with McCain over government spending.

But others have outright rejected the idea of a McCain nomination and presidency, warning that his tirades suggest a temperament unfit for the Oval Office.

"The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine," Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), also a senior member of the Appropriations panel, told the Boston Globe recently. "He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me."

A former colleague says McCain's abrasive nature would, at minimum, make his relations with Republicans on Capitol Hill uneasy if he were to become president. McCain could find himself the victim of Republicans who will not go the extra mile for him on legislative issues because of past grievances.

"John was very rough in the sandbox," said former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who is outspoken in his opposition to McCain's candidacy. "Everybody has a McCain story. If you work in the Senate for a while, you have a McCain story. . . . He hasn't built up a lot of goodwill."

Santorum was a fierce advocate for the GOP's social conservative wing -- a group particularly hostile to McCain because of his apostasy on immigration and same-sex marriage -- while Cochran is considered one of the more genteel senators. Both men back Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, for president.

To McCain's allies, his fiery personality is part of the "Straight Talk" lore, and a positive quality in a passionate fighter who will tell you to your face how much he dislikes an idea.


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