Compromise on Detainees May Ease McCain's Path Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican maverick at the center of the recent impasse over the treatment of terrorism suspects, has faced pressure for his role — especially in light of his future ambitions.
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Compromise on Detainees May Ease McCain's Path

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Compromise on Detainees May Ease McCain's Path

Compromise on Detainees May Ease McCain's Path

Compromise on Detainees May Ease McCain's Path

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Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican maverick at the center of the recent impasse over the treatment of terrorism suspects, has faced pressure for his role — especially in light of his future ambitions.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Joining us to talk about the politics of all this is NPR's Mara Liasson. And Mara, one of the key Republican senators involved here is John McCain and by making it clear that he opposed the Bush administration on this, how might it affect his chances for the presidential nomination in 2008.

MARA LIASSON: Well, that's been the great subject of speculation in Washington all throughout this confrontation because McCain is the frontrunner and he has often been at odds with the administration and with his party's conservative base.

He's been working very hard to improve his relationship with both the president and conservatives and he's been making progress. This clearly didn't help him. I think the question is how much did it hurt him?

Now one top McCain strategist who I talked to today said this would have been a lot worse if it had blown up, but they reached a compromise and there might even be a picture of McCain standing next to Bush when he signs this legislation.

And, you know, the McCain camp takes the long view. There have been other disagreements with the White House that have blown over. Of course, a lot of this will depend on what happens next. And one conservative who I'd call a McCain-leaning National Security hawk told me today that he thinks it actually damaged McCain more than the McCain camp will admit and suggested that the way to make up for the damage is for McCain to take the lead in, for instance, getting John Bolton confirmed. Doing something to reaffirm his support for the Bush national security agenda.

SIEGEL: Now there's been some criticism of McCain by conservative leaders, including the conservative Manchester Union leader, which is the big newspaper in New Hampshire. How would you describe John McCain's relationship with the Republican Party's conservative base right now?

LIASSON: Well, look. It's troubled, but he's working on it. And that is the storyline of the McCain campaign. And the question is can he do it? He had a very famous appearance at Jerry Falwell's University, Liberty University. But when you look at the people who've been criticizing him over this, the Union Leader, Grover Norquist, the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, these are long-time McCain enemies.

What you haven't seen is anonymous quotes from the White House or from prominent Republicans or RNC affiliates questioning his motives or saying that he's disloyal. If the White House had wanted to stop former Bush operatives from signing up with the McCain camp as they have been doing in droves, they could have done it. But they didn't. And as a matter of fact, I'm told that a former top official with the Bush 2004 campaign in Iowa will announce that he's joining McCain tomorrow.

SIEGEL: Well, what do you then think is the White House attitude toward McCain's role in all of this? Are they angry about it?

LIASSON: I don't think so. I think that they understand this was a matter of principle. No one in the White House suggests that he did this out of disloyalty or to poke Bush in the eye. I think on questions of torture, McCain has special standing. I think there's a big difference between McCain's relationship with the White House and McCain's relationship with conservatives and that relationship is still pretty troubled.

Conservatives still don't trust McCain. They believe he really doesn't like them or think that they are a necessary part of the Republican coalition and his opponents, of course, are working very hard to exploit that.

SIEGEL: I just want you to put this in some context here of what we know about public opinion. This is a discussion of how to handle terror suspects and how to deal with terrorism. This according to the polls at least, this is the long suit, the White House's long and strong suit.

LIASSON: Definitely. That's right. I think that public opinion in general from what we can tell from the polls is with the White House on this. In other words, when it's boiled down to its simplest formulation, do you want to be tough on the terrorists or do you want to give them special rights? Do you care about civil -

SIEGEL: Treat them with dignity and respect.

LIASSON: Or civil liberties for terrorists. But I think that McCain is in a special category. I don't think that he is seen as carrying water for the ACLU or that he is soft on terrorists, but that he - the issue of torture and the treatment of American servicemen who are held captive abroad is something that he cares deeply about. And he's the country's most famous former POW.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Mara Liasson.

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