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John McCain Works to Win Bush Republicans in 2008

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John McCain Works to Win Bush Republicans in 2008

Politics

John McCain Works to Win Bush Republicans in 2008

John McCain Works to Win Bush Republicans in 2008

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Nobody has helped sell the Bush Administration's war in Iraq better than John McCain. But the Arizona senator has had an up and down relationship with the president ever since their bitter 2000 Republican primary battle. If McCain runs for president in 2008, he will have to win over Bush supporters to win.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. In Iowa today, Republicans are greeting a possible presidential candidate with his eyes on 2008. Nothing unusual about that, perhaps, except that this one is John McCain--the Arizona senator who refused to compete in the Iowa caucuses when he last ran for the White House in 2000. McCain does plan to compete in Iowa if he runs in 2008. One more sign that this time, the maverick has become the frontrunner.

McCain has been making the rounds of other states that make a difference early in the nominating process. NPR National Political Correspondent Mara Liasson traveled with John McCain and filed this report.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

It's Saturday morning, and the Borders Bookstore in West Lebanon, New Hampshire is overflowing with hundreds of adoring McCainiacs--lined up to get the senator's signature in his latest book.

Unidentified Announcer: Now ready for number 51 through 100, then go ahead and get in the line.

LIASSON: It's six years since McCain won the last New Hampshire Republican primary, and two and half years before the next one. But judging from the size of the crowd here, McCain is still a bona fide political celebrity.

In 2000, his insurgent campaign against a corrupt political system in Washington won him swooning media coverage and overwhelming support from New Hampshire voters, like substitute teacher Jane Johns(ph), who is in line at Borders clutching her book.

Ms. JANE JOHNS (Teacher, New Hampshire): I like John McCain. I just think he's a great, honest, he's very consistent. I think he sticks by what he believes is the right thing, and he's a great guy.

LIASSON: Did you vote for him last time?

Ms. JOHNS: I did. I did.

LIASSON: You definitely will again?

Ms. JOHNS: Oh, absolutely.

LIASSON: But if McCain has that base to build on, his new stature is making him more of target for both the left and the right.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Why don't we have people line up at the mics, okay? Is that all right?

LIASSON: At a standing-room only town meeting at Keene State College last weekend, McCain was attacked for supporting an immigration bill many feel amounts to amnesty for undocumented workers. One of the most vocal of these was Jason Sacorsky(ph).

Mr. JASON SARCORSKY: ...regarding the issue of illegal immigration, and statements that have been made by Senator McCain and by members of other Republicans in the Senate that as a registered Republican, I find absolutely disgusting. A criminal is a criminal. You prosecute them, you either jail them, or if they're non-citizens, you throw them out. No amnesty, no exception. I don't care if they've been here 50 years.

SENATOR McCAIN: But thank you very much. We have a respectful disagreement. And both of us would at least agree that the status quo is not acceptable. And you're going to have to tell me the mechanics of rounding up 11 million people and how you do that before I would sign on to your rather impassioned statement. I thank you very much...

LIASSON: McCain also has new problems with some of those who fell in love with the way he took on the Christian right in 2000. Now, they see him as a hypocrite for agreeing to give the commencement address at Liberty University headed by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, the man McCain called an agent of intolerance in 2000. Keene State student Silas Bennett(ph) clearly liked the old McCain better.

Mr. SILAS BENNETT (Student, Keene State College): I wouldn't have any problem with you speaking at very conservative universities, but this is different. I mean this is a radical, religious movement that Jerry Falwell is part of. And don't you think that a respected person, such as yourself, don't you think that that legitimizes that movement?

SENATOR McCAIN: We have an honest difference of opinion about that quote, "movement." Christian conservatives are a part of the Republican Party. They're a very active part of the Republican Party. Should we eject people from our party, because we may have disagreements? I think the great strength of the Republican party is for us all to get involved, debate, come to consensus and have honest and open disagreements.

LIASSON: McCain is not pandering to the Christian rights, say his supporters. He's just approaching a 2008 campaign in a different way.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Number one, he's going to be running to prove that he can lead a party, not a movement.

LIASSON: South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham says in 2008, McCain will not be the insurgent outsider, promising to perform what he said in 2000 was a hostile takeover of the Republican Party.

Senator GRAHAM: I think what you'll see with John this coming go around, if he runs, is that the Republican Party has to be united, and he's going to be a president not for some social club in elite cities, but he's going to be the president and leader of a party that has a lot of different people in it.

LIASSON: That means that while McCain still won't vote for the gay marriage amendment when it comes up in the Senate, he supports a state constitutional amendment instead. He also won't be picking fights with leading conservative Christians either. And McCain has also been reaching out to President Bush's political network--the one's who pummeled him five years ago. He's hiring former Bush fundraisers and political operatives. And he's also lining up support from Bush allies, such as South Carolina's State Senator John Courson, who once helped derail his first campaign. Now, Courson is with McCain, and he says the candidate's recent visits to South Carolina are beginning to pay off.

State Senator JOHN E. COURSON (Republican, South Carolina): There was some hostility toward Senator McCain by these so-called social conservatives in the 2000 campaign. I think that has been obviated, I think, to a degree. That doesn't mean that they are jumping onboard on his campaign, but they're not out sharpening the knife to try to defeat him.

LIASSON: But, McCain still has a lot of work to do in South Carolina.

Unidentified Man: Good evening. Good evening. This is our 39th Annual Silver Elephant Banquet.

LIASSON: At the Republican State Convention in Columbia, South Carolina last weekend, there were plenty of Republicans who still distrust McCain. Windy Windham is a delegate from Clarendon County.

Mr. CECIL WINDY WINDHAM (State Executive Committeeman, South Carolina Republican Party): I can't support John. He is a renegade. He's been a pain in the neck to the party up there on a lot of things that he should have supported.

LIASSON: McCain has broken with Republican orthodoxy on campaign finance reform, gun control, and global warming. And he pressured the president into signing a ban on prisoner torture. But he's also voting for an extension of the Bush tax cuts he opposed in 2001. And he's been one of the president's best backers on Iraq. But that's not enough for Esther Wagner, a social conservative and the treasurer of the Greenville County Republicans.

Ms. ESTHER WAGNER (Treasurer, Greenville County Republican Party): He never was a conservative. I appreciate his service to the country, but I just disagree with his politics. I can't see myself voting for John McCain, ever. I would let a Democrat win rather than vote for John McCain. I feel that strongly against him.

LIASSON: McCain may never win over people who feel like Esther Wagner does, and there are plenty of them. But he may not have to.

Mr. DAVID KEENE (President, American Conservative Union): They don't have to get folks like me to love John McCain. They just have to get us to quietly grumble, rather than run around the country saying out loud that we just really don't want him.

LIASSON: David Keene is the president of the American Conservative Union, which ranks McCain's Senate record as very conservative. But, Keene says, McCain's votes are not the problem.

Mr. KEENE: The problem that conservatives have with McCain stems, in part, from his temperament, and their feeling that he just doesn't like them. He said in 2000 that he wanted to remake the party in a different way. That was translated to conservatives as remake the party without you.

LIASSON: McCain clearly has changed his mind about that. Remaking the party is no longer his priority. In this very early stage of the race, McCain is the frontrunner, with polls showing he has the most support from Republican primary voters, and from Democrats and Independents. That's an advantage in a general election, and proof of what McCain supporters say is his electability.

David Keene.

Mr. KEENE: He has the best shot at the Republican nomination of any of the potential candidates. And what he's doing is trying to remove landmines and roadblocks that stand between him and an acceptance speech at the 2008 Republican convention. That's very smart. It's possible that he can do it. I just say it's tough. He's going to have to do a lot of reassuring to conservatives that know him and have followed his career. He's going to have to reassure them that this time, I really mean it.

LIASSON: If all this sounds like a family feud, it is; and those can be the hardest to resolve. The trick for McCain is to reconcile with the conservative base of his party in a way that's sincere enough to sell, but that doesn't alienate voters who saw him as an authentic, independent figure who says what he believes.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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