STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENÉE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renée Montagne.

There are at least half a dozen Republicans who have either declared their candidacy for president or hinted at their plans to enter the race. Last night, Arizona Senator John McCain moved a step closer to making his candidacy official. In an appearance on the David Letterman show, he said he will be a candidate for the president of the United States, but he said that wasn't the last word.

(Soundbite of interview from "The Late Show with David Letterman")

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): By the way, I'll be making a formal announcement in April.

Mr. DAVID LETTERMAN (Host, "The Late Show with David Letterman"): So this is not the formal announcement?

Sen. MCCAIN: This is the announcement. You know, you drag this out as long as you can.

Mr. LETTERMAN: I see.

Sen. MCCAIN: You know, I mean, you don't just have one rendition right? You've got it over and over.

Mr. LETTERMAN: So you're saying this was not the formal announcement?

Sen. MCCAIN: This is the announcement preceding the formal announcement.

Mr. LETTERMAN: Well, how do you think that makes me feel?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: NPR's political editor, Ken Rudin, is keeping track of who's in and who's out and he joins us now. And of course, Ken, no surprise that Senator McCain is running for president, and we'll remember that he ran back in 2000. What's the difference between McCain then and McCain now?

KEN RUDIN: Well, Renee, he's seven years older. I was always very good at math. But more importantly, he's 70 years old. He'll be 73 at the time of the inauguration, and that will be the oldest any president ever first elected to the presidency would be. Also there's a whispering campaign about John McCain's health. He's had skin cancer surgery, sometimes he looks tired and that's of a factor as well.

But also he has a very complicated relationship with President Bush, and part of it is about the Iraq war. And obviously in 2000, he was the straight-talking independent that the media loved and the independents in New Hampshire loved. But now he's a strong supporter of the war. He says that - regarding the president's surge in Iraq - that more troops should be sent. So he has a very complicated relationship both with voters, independent voters, and the president on the issues like the war in Iraq and social conservative issues.

MONTAGNE: Well, these are, you know, having staked out what is now an unpopular position on the war, and especially at this moment during all the debate about the surge, will his campaign rise or fall on this situation there?

RUDIN: I think that's clear. We saw in 2006 that Iraq was the key issue in the minds of many voters. And although the Republican base still supports President Bush, still likes the war, appealing to a general election public is a clearly different thing for John McCain. He also has a very complicated relationship with religious conservatives. He blasted them as agents of intolerance in 2000. Now he's clearly warming up to them in his bid for the nomination.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's put this briefly in context. How does he compare to the rest of the Republican field?

RUDIN: Well, again, we're talking about 11 months before the Iowa caucuses, but if you look at the national polls, Rudy Giuliani is seems - the former mayor of New York City - is a clear frontrunner if you look at the numbers now. Talking about numbers 11 months in advance is really nuts. But if we're talking about John McCain that he may not be sufficiently conservative on issues like stem cell research and taxes and things like that, well Rudy Giuliani is pro-choice and anti-guns and pro-gay rights.

MONTAGNE: So wait until he hits the primary.

RUDIN: Exactly. There's a long way to go.

MONTAGNE: Okay. You know, just quickly back to the Iraq war. Senator McCain has made it clear that he thinks it's been very badly managed. He's even said wasted lives as of yesterday. Can he get himself out of supporting the war in a sense?

RUDIN: Well, he's also criticized Donald Rumsfeld as one of the worst defense secretaries in history. But he also knows that the Republican party is still behind the president and the war, and that's where he thinks the voters must be in 2008.

MONTAGNE: Ken, thanks very much.

RUDIN: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ken Rudin.

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