Political climate warms to McCain

WASHINGTON – The political landscape may be shifting in ways that would make it easier for Arizona Sen. John McCain to win the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.

He’ll be among several potential candidates courting Southern and Midwest Republicans who are meeting this weekend in Memphis, Tenn., the first chance that party insiders will have to look at several would-be nominees in one place.

The conventional wisdom of the moment – that McCain could win the general election but not the Republican nomination because conservatives oppose him – may be changing. A convergence of three new forces could be reshaping the landscape just as Republicans begin deciding who’ll lead their party into the post-Bush era:

“First is a rising contempt in the heartland for politics as usual in Washington. That could help the maverick senator, who frequently reaches across party lines.

“Second, many economic conservatives are shifting their emphasis from tax reductions to spending cuts, a McCain strength.

“Third, charges of corruption against Republicans in Congress could cost the party seats next fall and add luster to McCain’s carefully groomed image as a reformer.

The most significant change in Republican politics, of course, is the decline of President Bush’s standing in the opinion polls.

That not only helps explain the growing willingness of congressional Republicans to defy the president on some questions, such as foreign management of U.S. ports, it also underscores why McCain – often Bush’s nemesis – may benefit from the president’s shifting fortunes.

McCain can play both sides of this phenomenon. He fought an often-bitter battle with Bush for the 2000 nomination and has clashed occasionally with him since, but he also won favor from conservatives by campaigning for Bush in 2004.

“He did himself some good,” said Bob Davis Jr., the chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party and the host of the weekend meeting. “But some will still remember things that were said back in 2000.”

To be sure, some conservatives still don’t like McCain. They don’t like his opposition to some tax cuts, his push to ban torture of suspected terrorists and the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, which they charge curbed free speech by restricting political advertising before elections.

Republican strategist Frank Luntz said McCain struck conservative insiders differently from those outside the corridors of power.

“His greatest difficulty is with the GOP elites,” Luntz said. “They don’t find him loyal. … But he does well with rank and file.”

Yet McCain could benefit from the perception that Hillary Clinton may be the Democrats’ presidential nominee in 2008. Nothing rouses Republicans more than the Clintons returning to the White House. And if it looks as if McCain is their best bet to beat Clinton, they might suppress their reservations and nominate him.


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