McCain's Challenge: Shoring Up Republican Divisions While the Democratic presidential candidates have been battling through the primary season, the presumptive Republican nominee has been looking ahead to the general election. Sen. John McCain must decide how to navigate between the party's conservative and moderate factions. NPR's Steve Inskeep talks to NPR's Juan Williams about McCain's campaign strategy.
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McCain's Challenge: Shoring Up Republican Divisions

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McCain's Challenge: Shoring Up Republican Divisions

McCain's Challenge: Shoring Up Republican Divisions

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Senator John McCain cheerfully told "Saturday Night Live" that he hopes the Democrats fight on and on and on. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama oblige him today, contesting primaries in Kentucky and Oregon. But for McCain, the Republican result is not in doubt.

What we do not know is how strong McCain will be once the fall campaign arrives. NPR News analyst Juan Williams is tracking that. He's in our studios. Good morning, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Are conservatives any more impressed with John McCain than they were some weeks ago?

WILLIAMS: Not really. It's been a slow climb for the senator from Arizona. Polls show only half of conservatives now say they will definitely vote for McCain over, let's say, Senator Obama or Senator Clinton. His strength really is with independents as what I think of as brand rebel, the maverick who has fought his own party, the GOP, on immigration, campaign finance reform, the treatment of detainees.

So this helps him. It serves him well among independents, where he is currently ahead of Senator Clinton, slightly behind Senator Obama. But when you think about how he has been defining himself, Steve, he has opposed the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, historically, recently gave a speech on global warming that angered the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity because they see him as buying into global warming.

He spoke to La Raza, again appealing to the Hispanic vote, and some of the GOP said that was pandering. And what he's offered the base is things like, you know, saying he's going to appoint strict constructionist judges in the hope that that base will come around in the fall.

INSKEEP: Well, you know, we've been talking about this on the program. We heard from David Keene a few days ago, the American Conservative Union, who said - he looked over those results you just said and said that he thinks McCain is approaching this in a quasi-schizophrenic way. He ducks right. He ducks left. He ducks right. He ducks left.

But then Keene went on to say when he adds it all up, he's, quote, "marginally more reassured." He's gotten a little of what he wants. Is that going to be enough for conservatives to stay on board with McCain?

WILLIAMS: It's a matter of sort of, you know, my enemy's enemy is my friend, Steve. And they clearly are interested in trying to maintain Republican power, and they face such a daunting task in trying to hold on to anything in the House and the Senate right now that McCain is the best bet.

But as I said earlier, McCain is brand rebel, and it's hard to think that he's going to have coattails that will carry other Republicans. So he really - it really is all about McCain at this point. And he'd like to, for instance, have President Bush's base. He wants that base, and so he'd like - also would like to have President Bush's fundraising ability. But he's got to deal with the fact that President Bush has historically high disapproval numbers.

INSKEEP: Got to deal with the fact that Barack Obama's out there on the stump already saying McCain is a third term of President Bush.

WILLIAMS: Correct. In fact, a recent poll found that President Bush is more of a problem for McCain than Reverend Jeremiah Wright is for Barack Obama. And every time that President Bush gives a speech, as he did in Israel, and stirs controversy, in some ways, it helps Senator Obama by making him look more presidential and reminding people of Senator McCain's ties to President Bush.

INSKEEP: How did this senator, whose integrity is a big part of his image, end up hiring so many lobbyists to work in his campaign, lobbyists who are now having to resign, one after the other after the other?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's ironic because as, you know, we've been saying, his reputation is as a man who wants to limit the power of special interests in Washington. But the people who are in position to help him, in fact, are those lobbyists. They're people he knows best after being in this town since 1983. The lobbyists are the ones who can raise money, make deals to again bring in that base that he needs so badly - you know, but the people at the top of the campaign, his campaign manager, Rick Davis, well known as a lobbyist in this town, Charlie Black, his senior advisor, again well known as a lobbyist, although he says he's retired.

But recently, he had to let go of his convention planner because of ties to the Myanmar junta that's been now deemed to be, you know, overly oppressive, ties also for his general co-chairman of his campaign to Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong.

This is just very tough for him, because he can't appeal to other politicians in the party because of their own problems. And he's got nowhere else to go because he is really rooted here in Washington, and the lobbyists are the ones with the skills to help him at this point.

INSKEEP: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR News analyst Juan Williams in our studios here at MORNING EDITION.

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