Bush’s Woes Mean Opportunity for McCain

Strains between President Bush and his conservative supporters are giving John McCain an opening — albeit a narrow one — to make inroads among those activists as he eyes his prospects for a 2008 presidential run.

Runaway federal spending, Hurricane Katrina, aspects of the war in Iraq, and the failed nomination of White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court have set the stage for the maverick Arizona senator to propose ideas that are being embraced by party activists who have disliked him since he challenged Bush for the GOP nomination in 2000.

In the past few weeks, McCain, 69, a decorated former prisoner of war and critic of pork-barrel spending, has:

_ Called on members of Congress to give up billions of dollars worth of pet projects adopted earlier this year in a massive transportation spending bill, saying the money should instead go to hurricane relief.

_ Proposed delaying or altogether canceling the president’s Medicare prescription drug coverage plan. The program is about to take effect but remains controversial because of long-term costs in the trillions of dollars and criticisms it will help the pharmaceutical industry more than it does most older Americans.

_ Pulled together the bipartisan support to attach a controversial amendment to the Senate’s version of a defense bill, restricting tactics the military can use in interrogating detainees in the war on terror. The president sees the amendment as an affront. But it appeals to some religious conservatives and advocates of individual liberties who feel some reported abuses of detainees are inhumane and run counter to Christian principles. At the same time, McCain stands by the overall war effort as do a majority of Republicans.

Several conservatives, including leaders affiliated with the Eagle Forum, Concerned Women For America and the American Conservative Union, say they like what they’re hearing from McCain on these fronts, and in some other areas. The senator recently told the Arizona Daily Star he is open to public schools teaching the concept of “intelligent design” as an alternative theory to evolution.

Even so, many of those conservatives say they have such an abiding distrust of McCain’s broader agenda and loyalties that they are unlikely to embrace him, regardless of the nation’s biggest challenges or the rest of the GOP field for 2008.

“I’m not at all certain that taking those positions alleviates John’s problems with conservatives,” said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “Sometimes I like him. But I don’t trust him. I don’t think a lot of conservatives would be mollified that he’s now pressing issues on which they agree. A lot of conservatives feel he doesn’t like them and that if he were in the position to, he’d be hostile and try to drive them out of the party.”

Sore subjects include McCain’s advocacy of campaign finance limits, which some conservatives see as a limitation of free speech; his support of immigration reforms that some conservatives say would reward illegal immigration and encourage even more of it; and an independent streak, temper and affinity for publicity that have led him to buck the party line on a variety of other issues, including judicial nominations.

Moreover, some conservatives have never forgiven McCain for a speech in February 2000 in which he attacked televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell for politicizing religion and suggested it was more important to reach across the partisan spectrum than to court religious conservatives.

Phyllis Schlafly, one of the nation’s most outspoken conservative women, said some of McCain’s recent positions are appealing, but that her aversion to him as a Republican political figure has become so entrenched it is reflexive.

“I can’t remember why it is we don’t want him,” she said. “He just doesn’t seem to be a team player. He’s a media hound. Everything he says and does is geared toward getting himself in the media.”

In a brief interview last week, McCain said none of his recent moves was made with an eye toward 2008 and that he hadn’t given any thought to how conservatives would receive them.

“I don’t know anything about that,” he said, adding, “I try to do what’s right. I try to do what’s right.”

But as McCain considers whether to make another go at the White House _ a decision he is not expected to announce until after the 2006 midterm elections _ a central question for him will be whether he can appeal to enough conservative Republicans to survive the primary elections.

Early polling shows McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani leading among Republican voters, and suggests either could be popular enough to beat a Democrat if he could get to the general election. McCain is regarded as such a popular bipartisan figure that Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who faces an uphill vote on several initiatives on an upcoming ballot, tapped him earlier this month to stump for him in Democratic California.

If the conservative wing of the GOP is as important in the next presidential primary as it has been for Bush, however, a McCain or Giuliani candidacy could suffer against those of several senators with more defined loyalties to conservatives.

The unexpected nomination of Miers, a member of the president’s inner circle whose ideological and judicial credentials are being openly questioned by some of the president’s ardent supporters, could indirectly deflate some conservative animosity toward McCain.

McCain has praised Miers, not attacked her. But so many prominent conservatives have openly disagreed with the president’s choice that publicly second-guessing Bush _ one of conservatives’ beefs about McCain _ is no longer considered as taboo.

Meanwhile, the nation’s focus on spending and defense has at least temporarily taken attention away from some of the policy issues underlying the rifts between McCain and conservatives.

“It does him a world of good,” said Stephen Slivinski, director of budget studies for the libertarian CATO Institute. “If you ask most conservatives what they like most about him, it’s his support for the war in Iraq and his fight against excessive government spending. Based upon the discontent I and a lot of budget wonks hear, they’re really fed up with what Bush has done.

“Anyone who runs for the presidential nomination on the Republican side, they can either run on the Bush legacy or say, ‘I think the Bush legacy was flawed because they spent into oblivion,'” Slivinski said. “All of this is going to be prime grist for anyone running for president.”

But Michael Bowman, executive director of the political action committee affiliated with Concerned Women For America, said McCain’s independent streak is still more of a negative as far as conservatives go.

“You sometimes need the maverick to carry the legislation when you know your side is wrong or needs to be corrected,” Bowman said. “He’s someone outside the Republican hierarchy who’s respected enough that you can say, ‘Hey, John McCain put me in this position, I had to vote with him, Mr. President.’ But most people still believe John McCain cannot win the primary among Republicans. It really would have to be a split where there is at least a three-way race. In that case, he would have a shot.”