The Real McCain
Even with such a mainstream conservative message, who makes up McCain's base? "It's not the far right but conservative, practical thinkers in the Republican Party," says Fose. And how many of those currently exist? "Enough," he chuckles.
But right-wing Republicans like Norquist still hold McCain's occasional moderation and rebel style in deep suspicion. Many observers believe they will rally around a more ideologically pure candidate like Senator George Allen of Virginia or Sam Brownback of Kansas. "The politicized, active part of the Republican base has been stepped on by McCain," says Norquist, citing McCain's opposition to Bush's tax cuts as well as his support for greenhouse gas reductions and his pioneering of contemporary campaign-finance reform. "It'd be hard to imagine we'd be supporting Senator McCain," agrees former Congressman Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth.
Some of that criticism can be chalked up to McCain's testy relationship with parts of the GOP's Beltway establishment. Toomey's Club for Growth is being sued by the Federal Election Commission for violating a section of the campaign-finance laws that McCain wrote. Norquist is implicated in McCain's current investigation of how über-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed milked millions in casino money from unsuspecting Indian tribes. But among social conservatives, McCain's standing is unquestionably precarious. Though he has always voted with the right on abortion, McCain opposed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage (on states' rights grounds). He supports expanding federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, and he helped preserve the filibuster by stalling the "nuclear option" for judicial nominees in the Senate.
Throughout his career, McCain has rarely talked about social issues or paid lip service to the religious right--prompting activists to question his devotion. "Some point to his record on pro-life issues and other questions and they say he really is acceptable," says evangelical leader Paul Weyrich, an influential founder of the modern conservative movement. "Others point to his reaction after the South Carolina primary and feel that underneath he is hostile." The bottom line? "I could not support him for President." Weyrich estimates that 60 percent of social conservative leaders feel the same way. "Social conservatives are the majority of the boots on the ground," says the Rev. Richard Land, a close Bush ally and director of the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention. "If fiscal conservatives and neocons and libertarians want to test that theory, they're in for an electoral debacle."
Recent history, however, isn't nearly that clear. Many religious-right leaders supported fringe candidates like John Ashcroft, Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes before rallying around Bush in 2000. McCain even won the endorsement of evangelical leader Gary Bauer after he promised to appoint only antiabortion judges. "I admire the religious right for the dedication and zeal they put into the political process," McCain told Larry King recently. If he's not making an outright play for the social conservative vote, McCain is certainly trying to blunt their dislike of him--hence his recent positions on intelligent design and gay marriage in Arizona, and his sit-down with Falwell. "McCain doesn't need to get majority support of the social conservatives, just a portion," says John Pitney, a government expert at Claremont McKenna College. "Bush 41 was not a favorite of social conservatives in 1988, but he had enough support to get through."
Over the next year, we're bound to see both sides of McCain. He'll continue to push for noteworthy reforms in the Senate--on torture, lobbying, defense procurement, immigration and other issues--while quietly and not-so-quietly courting elements of the conservative base. Right now, he's offering Republican activists a firm handshake. If it ever becomes a bear hug, akin to his embrace of Bush on the campaign trail in 2004, the John McCain of '08 may look quite different to moderates and independents from the John McCain they think they know now. If the heir to Barry Goldwater emerges as the new face of conservatism, it'll be clear that even straight talkers know how to spin.