By Michael D. Shear and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 23, 2008
Boston conservative radio host Jay Severin has repeatedly described Sen. John McCain as "a liberal," "a Democrat" and "no conservative." On a recent show, he said President Bush's defense of McCain's conservative credentials made him want to "barf."
But on his blog yesterday, Severin abandoned his philosophical differences with the Arizona Republican and defended McCain against the New York Times. "When the story is the smearing, the savaging of a national hero . . . imagine what a horrible corruption of power, what arrogance, what Danger that represents."
After the Times published its article this week accusing McCain of having an improper relationship with a lobbyist, many conservatives who had described the senator as a sellout, a turncoat or worse have suddenly found a reason to defend the soon-to-be leader of the Republican Party.
"The conservatives hate the New York Times so much," said veteran Republican lobbyist Tom Korologos, who added that their new message is: "Go get 'em, John, the dirty bastards."
But the respite may be a short-lived reaction to McCain's current troubles. The Times article aside, conservatives remain suspicious of McCain's commitment to social causes, angry about his leading role in campaign finance policy revisions and unconvinced about his desire to limit illegal immigration.
The allegations in the Times article are a reminder that conservatives are barreling toward the general election fight with a candidate who has potential political vulnerabilities and who was not the first choice of many of them.
"This does help Senator McCain with conservatives, but it's not enough," said Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax group. "Senator McCain, I think, needs to -- and will -- engage in an outreach effort to persuade conservatives they ought to be enthusiastic supporters."
Toomey said McCain and his advisers have been reaching out to fiscal conservatives. In the past, many in that community have doubted the senator's commitment to tax cuts, especially after he opposed the cuts pushed by Bush and championed by many in the Republican Party.
Toomey said it is "too early to judge" whether McCain's efforts are working, but he added, referring to the Times, "It's always good when a politician is looking for support from people with whom he has a common enemy."
Todd Harris, who worked for McCain's 2000 campaign and is now a Republican strategist, said McCain's battle with the newspaper "does not make his issues with certain conservatives go away altogether." But he said many members of that community are "now looking for things to love about him."
Evidence of that may be in McCain's fundraising, which has picked up dramatically since the Times published the article. The Washington Post also reported on concerns among some McCain aides about his connections to the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman.
Sources inside the McCain campaign and at the Republican National Committee said they saw a substantial return on new e-mail solicitations, though neither would say how much has been raised.
Both McCain's campaign and the RNC sent e-mails Thursday seeking to capitalize on conservative distaste for the Times and the media in general.
"We will not allow their scurrilous attack against a great American hero to stand," proclaimed the message sent by campaign manager Rick Davis. "Objective observers are viewing this article exactly as they should -- as a sleazy smear attack from a liberal newspaper against the conservative Republican front-runner."
Fundraising experts said yesterday that the outpouring is understandable. "Outrage opens the pocketbooks," said Philip A. Musser, a GOP strategist with national finance experience. Musser said conventional wisdom once held that bad news on the trail would dry up the flow of money to a candidate. But this year, the opposite has been true. One of Sen. Barack Obama's best fundraising efforts came the day after he lost in New Hampshire. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had her best stretch of fundraising after announcing that her campaign was in financial trouble.
Tracy Sturman, a Democratic fundraising consultant, said Internet donors are far more likely to contribute because of outside factors. "It's very impulsive," she said. "It can take just one emotional, knee-jerk reaction to get someone to give money online."
But even as the money flowed in, McCain's lawyers were working to counter a warning from the Federal Election Commission chairman that the candidate has not yet been permitted to withdraw from the public financing system, as he had requested.
McCain counsel Trevor Potter has said that the warning is meaningless because the chairman has no authority to act right now. The six-member FEC board lacks a quorum because the Senate has deadlocked on confirming nominees for four open seats.
But election law experts said yesterday that the matter cannot be brushed aside. If the FEC seats are filled and the panel rejects McCain's arguments for leaving the system, he will face severe restrictions on primary spending.
"Senator McCain is in uncharted waters," said Paul Ryan, an FEC expert at the Campaign Legal Center.
In a statement, McCain's campaign maintained that he has a right to exit the system. "It is clear to the campaign, as it is to a number of FEC experts, that no FEC action is necessary in response to Senator McCain's notice of withdrawal given the constitutional nature of the right," the statement said.