McCain Plots Course to the White House

The 2006 election is gone. But 2008 is just around the corner. Arizona Sen. John McCain is the early Republican presidential frontrunner. He has given two addresses to conservative groups.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

You know, they haven't even finished counting all the votes from the midterm elections, but the 2008 presidential campaign has already begun. Yesterday, the early front-runner for the Republican nomination filed some papers, and that's all John McCain has to do to make news. He established a presidential exploratory committee. He also gave speeches to two groups of conservatives, the segment of the party that McCain has had trouble with in the past.

Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: McCain delivered his explanation of the 2006 results to two cornerstones of the conservative movement: the Federalist Society, a group that nurtures a network of conservative judicial appointees, and GOPAC, a political action committee that works to elect Republican candidates. McCain told them the midterms were not an endorsement of Democratic policies, but rather a rejection of a Republican Party that had lost its way.

JOHN MCCAIN: I think they rejected us because they felt we had come to value our incumbency over our principles; and partisanship from both parties was no longer a contest of ideas, but an even cruder and uncivil brawl over the spoils of power.

LIASSON: The speeches were McCain's attempt to lay claim to the message of last Tuesday's elections, and to make the implicit argument that his brand of maverick conservatism and his history of working across party lines is just what voters are looking for now. He urged Republicans to return to what he called common-sense conservatism.

MCCAIN: We were elected to reduce the size of government and enlarge the sphere of free and private enterprise. We increased the size of government and the false hope that we could bribe the public into keeping us in office. And the people punished us. We lost our principles and our majority, and there is no way to recover our majority without recovering our principles first.

LIASSON: What happened last Tuesday, in particular the role of independent and moderate voters, reinforces McCain's appeal as a general election candidate. But he's still left with his vulnerabilities as a Republican primary candidate. David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, says the midterm elections should leave McCain feeling both elated and nervous.

DAVID KEENE: I think that John McCain enters the 2008 cycle as the front-runner for the nomination for the simple reason that he has the largest base personally within the Republican Party. His problem is that he may have the lowest ceiling, which is to say that he may be the candidate who has a lot of Republicans who are going to say they are not going to support him under any circumstances.

So the final battle, if you will, in the party for the nomination may well come down to John McCain and not John McCain.

LIASSON: In Keene's view, McCain is better off with a lot of other candidates splitting the not John McCain vote. But last Tuesday's election decimated the ranks of the McCain alternatives. Bill Frist, Rick Santorum and George Allen all saw their presidential hopes squashed, leaving McCain, for the moment, in the improbable position as the most conservative candidate in the field.

But the Republican nominating contest is drawing some new entries. This week, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani took the first legal steps to explore a presidential bid; so did former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson. They joined Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who is busy hiring top Republican operatives to lay the foundation for his White House run. John McCain won't be lonely for long.

INSKEEP: We've been listening to NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who's still with us. And, Mara, I assume that Democrats are also positioning themselves for 2008.

LIASSON: Well, of course. The Democrats have a front-runner in the Senate, too: Hillary Rodham Clinton. And just like on the Republican side, the 2006 elections winnowed the Democratic field. Former Virginia Governor Mark Warner and Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold both decided not to run. John Kerry saw his stock drop after his gaffe. But I think that if the Democratic '08 field was a play, right now the title would be Waiting for Obama.

INSKEEP: How long will they wait for Barack Obama?

LIASSON: I don't think very long, actually. You know, Obama is the African-American senator from Illinois. He's a supernova, a real rock star in the Democratic Party. He's a charismatic performer. People say he lives up to his hype, and his hype is considerable. And Democrats say that he embodies the message of 2006. He's the antidote to polarization that voters seem to say that they're looking for. His entire message is about bridging divides and working across party lines.

INSKEEP: He's also, let's be frank, not that experienced.

LIASSON: Right. The downside for him is that he's only been in the Senate for two years, and he has absolutely no foreign policy experience.

INSKEEP: So who else is running?

LIASSON: Oh my goodness, a whole long list of people. Iowa Governor, former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack filed papers this week to run. You've got John Edwards, the former vice-presidential candidate. From the Senate, you've got Evan Bayh, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and also Wesley Clark is looking again at another run.

There are plenty of Democrats looking at this, but at this point, other than Barack Obama, there is no one who seems to rival Hillary Rodham Clinton in the polls.

INSKEEP: Well, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson will help us keep the names straight as the months go on. Mara, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Steve.

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