McCain Starts GOP Presidential Race
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 30, 1998; Page A1
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Vietnam war hero who has gained national attention for bucking his party on campaign finance reform and tobacco regulation, became the first Republican to take formal steps toward running for president in 2000.
McCain, who was elected to a third term in a landslide victory in November, was traveling out of the country yesterday. But former New Hampshire senator Warren B. Rudman (R) said McCain will file papers creating a presidential exploratory committee with the Federal Election Commission today.
"The formation of an exploratory committee marks the first significant step forward in a campaign for president by John McCain," said Rudman, who will chair the committee.
Republicans around the country said that although McCain starts as a long-shot, he could become a serious candidate in 2000, especially among voters turned off by Washington's raw partisanship of recent years.
McCain is known as a strong conservative, but has displayed an independent streak that has often frustrated and angered others in the GOP. This year, he co-sponsored a major campaign finance reform bill with Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and led unsuccessful efforts to pass a national tobacco regulation bill.
McCain is the first of what is likely to be a long parade of GOP presidential hopefuls, including Texas Gov. George W. Bush, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander and publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, among others. The 2000 campaign is the first in decades in which no one can claim on the basis of position that he is "entitled" to the nomination.
Time and organization could work against McCain, who has spent less time building the framework for the increasingly complicated task of running for president than many of the other potential candidates. Officials in New Hampshire and Iowa, the first states in the nominating process, said McCain has spent relatively little time in their states. Then there is the overwhelming pressure to raise money -- experts predict candidates will need $20 million to be competitive. McCain told the Arizona Republic in November that "there's a lot of other things I'd rather do -- like bang my head up against the wall."
Several states, most notably California, have moved their primaries dramatically forward in 2000, requiring candidates to get money faster and earlier than ever and diminishing the prospects of dark-horse or poorly financed candidates to emerge.
"I would say aside from the process, McCain's got a tremendous prospect for growth," said former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour. "He's a national hero, attractive, well spoken, high energy. And he's pretty well known, even though he doesn't have a national name."
Feingold said McCain "has a willingness to take an honest look at an issue and say what he thinks. . . . He does not feel constrained by anyone else's agenda. I'm not sure Republicans are smart enough to nominate him, but if they do, he will give us a run for our money."
Bush, a son of the former president, is leading in the early polls and has a national fund-raising apparatus. But he has had little exposure to the primary election voters who control the nomination. Bush has not made any decision on running, and likely will not do so until spring, when the Texas legislature winds up its work.
Forbes and Alexander, both of whom sought the nomination in 1996 and have been on the campaign circuit continually ever since, are considered certain contenders. Former vice president Dan Quayle is also geared up to run. Television commentator and columnist Patrick J. Buchanan, who ran in 1992 and 1996, is weighing a third campaign. Outgoing California Gov. Pete Wilson, who also ran in 1996, has said he's considering another bid.
Gary Bauer, a former Reagan White House aide who heads the conservative Family Research Council, has said he will announce his intentions in January, with associates predicting he will join the field. Other potential newcomers include Rep. John R. Kasich (Ohio) and Sen. John D. Ashcroft (Mo.). Ashcroft aide Juleanna Glover said the senator, who is scheduled to announce his decision to run for president or Senate in Springfield, Mo., on Tuesday, "has asked his supporters to be prepared to be up and running with an exploratory by Jan. 5."
On the Democratic side, former senator Bill Bradley (N.J.) became the first in his party to announce the formation of an exploratory committee, and several other potential candidates are considering the race. Most party officials expect Vice President Gore to enter as the frontrunner.
Speaking yesterday about the GOP race, Rudman said, "My sense is that New Hampshire is wide-open. Nobody knows any of these candidates very well, and there is no anointed candidate like there was last time," when Rudman supported Robert J. Dole.
Rudman said McCain's sponsorship of campaign finance reform "is a problem among elected officials and party officials, but I think the rank-and-file voters agree with what he was trying to do." Some conservatives said McCain's role in the tobacco debate could prove troublesome among conservative primary and caucus voters. The tobacco bill, aimed at curbing teenage smoking by increasing the cost of cigarettes, would have raised billions in government revenue for anti-smoking efforts nationwide. Conservatives complain that the bill was a "big government" solution to a social problem that taxpayers would have financed.
"It is going to be impossible to win the nomination as the outspoken champion of the largest middle-class tax increase in American history," said Keith Appell, who has worked for Ashcroft.
McCain aides said they anticipated such criticism, and privately acknowledged conducting polling, which suggested that conservatives won't hold that against him. "Republican parents, Democrat parents, independent parents care about what tobacco does to their kids," said McCain consultant Greg Stevens.
McCain, who opposes abortion, received a 95 percent rating from the American Conservative Union in 1996. He has received broad support from Hispanics in Arizona, and urged the GOP to be more inclusive.
An internationalist on trade and foreign policy, McCain has given President Clinton crucial support on several controversial issues. He backed Clinton's decision to send peacekeeping forces to Bosnia, and, as a Vietnam veteran, his endorsement of resuming normal diplomatic relations with Hanoi gave Clinton the political cover he needed to take that controversial step.
McCain, 62, an Annapolis graduate whose father and grandfather were both admirals, was a Navy pilot in Vietnam. He survived the destruction of his fighter plane but spent more than five years in a POW camp, withstanding torture and refusing early repatriation offers from his captors in order to remain with his fellow prisoners. Later, he served as a Pentagon liaison officer on Capitol Hill and moved to Arizona, winning the first of two House terms in 1982.
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
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