McCain Back to Square One: South Carolina
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Senator John McCain won't make his formal announcement that he's running for president until next month, but he is already campaigning hard in the early primary states, including the one that cost him the Republican nomination in 2000.
NPR's Mara Liasson spent the weekend traveling with the senator in South Carolina, and she has this report.
MARA LIASSON: Seven years ago this month, John McCain beat George Bush by 18 points in New Hampshire only to lose the nomination to Bush in South Carolina. Now McCain is back and working hard to appeal to the social conservatives who rejected him in 2000.
On Sunday, he was in Spartanburg being introduced by former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, a hero to many conservatives.
Mr. FRANK KEATING (Former Oklahoma Governor): I feel very strongly about the social issues. I know this is an individual who will stand for conservative values, who has been pro-life for 21 years. He is the only candidate in the race that is a true blue Reagan conservative and that's why I'm for him.
LIASSON: After the introduction, McCain tells the crowd that he wants to overturn Roe v. Wade, a more emphatic statement of his anti-abortion view than in 2000. He also promises to appoint conservative judges and veto any bill that has pork barrel projects.
At the same time, he's blunt about his break with conservative orthodoxy on global warming and immigration. But the main topic here and at every stop is the war in Iraq and McCain's support for President Bush's troop surge.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I can't guarantee success though, but I can guarantee the consequences of failure: chaos, genocide in the region, and a situation where America would probably have to come back.
LIASSON: South Carolina is second to none in its support for the military, and here McCain's position on the war is not challenged. The questions point in a different direction.
Unidentified Woman: My nephew, Jay Patch(ph), right here from Spartanburg, South Carolina, just left 12 hours ago. He's in the Marines. His mom and dad are really taking it hard. And we're just really, really concerned that John Murtha, that Nancy Pelosi, all the Democrats that took over are going to cut funds. It's like saying we don't care. We don't care that you're over there fighting and dying. They can't even get paid? I mean, give me a break.
(Soundbite of applause)
Sen. MCCAIN: What you saw on the floor of the United States Senate was a publicity stunt on the part of the Democrat majority, but it was also a precursor to an effort to have some kind of irresponsible idea that we could somehow impose benchmarks on troops as to whether they can be deployed or not and what funding and what readiness.
LIASSON: McCain's referring to a plan by House member John Murtha to require a high level of training and readiness for troops assigned to Iraq, a plan Murtha hopes will make higher troop levels there impossible.
McCain knows his political future is lashed to the president's policy, for better or worse. He knows this could be a problem for him in a general election, but South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who's McCain's oldest ally in the state, says it's helping him with Republican primary voters.
Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): What rubs people the wrong way is that at times John is seen as straying from the party line. But the fact that he's leading on this war at a time when we need leadership and he's staying by the president when very few Republicans are is scoring great points with the Republicans of South Carolina. So the war transcends all other issues.
LIASSON: At the Sugar and Spice diner, hundreds of Republicans packed themselves in to see McCain.
(Soundbite of crowd)
Unidentified Man: I'm all for you all the way.
LIASSON: This year, McCain is trying to convince voters that he is President Bush's logical successor. Mike Piglard(ph) did not vote for McCain in 2000.
Mr. MIKE PIGLARD (South Carolina Voter): I was a George Bush supporter and still am. I think John McCain is probably about the closest to George Bush of options that we have.
LIASSON: Justin Bracket(ph) is a student at Furman University, but he says he's old enough to remember how nasty the primary got in 2000.
Mr. JUSTIN BRACKET (Student, Furman University): I remember it. I've got to say what happened to Senator McCain then was a shame and I wish he was president today, actually. I think that the way his reputation was tarnished in such a way was just unbelievably ridiculous for a political campaign to get that ugly.
LIASSON: Bracket remembers attacks such as leaflets saying McCain had a black child. In fact, McCain does have an adopted daughter from Bangladesh. This year, however, McCain has inherited the old Bush organization in South Carolina, and while he has not changed his stand for stem cell research or against a federal anti-gay marriage amendment, he has changed his approach to social conservatives themselves.
(Soundbite of music)
LIASSON: In Spartanburg, he made a brief appearance at a church-sponsored abstinence-only rally. After a warm up act of Christian rap music, he was introduced to 1500 evangelical teenagers and their parents.
Unidentified Man #2: He believes in young people and we're honored to have him address this call for abstinence tonight. Senator, we welcome you to Spartanburg, South Carolina.
(Soundbite of cheering)
LIASSON: McCain will have plenty of company courting social conservatives. Mitt Romney is one rival working that vein in South Carolina and soon there will be more, says Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffman.
Professor SCOTT HUFFMAN (Political Science, Winthrop University): There's some real social conservatives getting in the race - Brownback, Duncan Hunter - and conservatives are going to see a wide variety of people that they can spread their votes out among. And the anti-McCain folks will probably - and this is what McCain's hoping - divvy up their votes among the other social conservatives.
LIASSON: And if they do, McCain could find the 40 percent of the vote he got here in 2000 will be more than enough to lead the pack in 2008.
Mara Liasson, NPR News.
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