- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 31, 2008

Navy brat, fighter jock, POW, survivor, hero, husband, father of seven, lawmaker, presidential nominee. Insurgent, of course. Maverick always.

Sen. John McCain has been there, done that for seven decades, while cameras rolled, pundits sputtered and the tides of the Republican Party rose and fell, for better or worse.

Is “president” next on the roster? The prospect requires a steady but exquisitely sensitive hand on the throttle. Mr. McCain has just nine weeks to unite a fractious GOP, assuage conservatives, neutralize a hostile press, assume a presidential posture, snap up swing voters and reassure Americans in general that they will live happily ever after, or at least until 2012.

Mr. McCain remains full of surprises. “McCain/Palin ‘08” is evidence that. Still, things look promising.

“Many folks counted him down and out a year ago. The other candidates stopped paying attention to him, they did not make a play to gather his support for themselves. Quietly, under the radar, he rebuilt himself. The others were caught sleeping. One has to give John McCain credit for doing that,” said Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman who is himself running for president on the Libertarian ticket.

Conservatives who felt that their bedrock values were threatened by a McCain presidency have let down their guard.

“Since he locked up the nomination, McCain has made personal advances with conservatives. Most importantly, one of the fears they had about him was that he was on a crusade to not just get the nomination but to remake the Republican Party in a way which would leave conservatives outside looking in,” said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

“McCain once likened it to a hostile takeover, as I recall. But it appears the McCain camp has decided essentially to let the GOP remake itself, which is comforting. It is a signal that McCain is ready to be president, not just retool the party,” Mr. Keene continued.

Mr. McCain’s take on certain issues vexed conservatives over the years. He voted against President Bush’s tax cuts, rallied for amnesty for illegal immigrants and personally engineered campaign finance laws. And yet Mr. McCain, maverick that he is, has curried favor with conservatives for years.

“I am a proud Reagan conservative. I love the Republican Party. It is my home,” he said.

Mr. McCain made the statement in early 2000. He called himself a “Goldwater Republican” in 2005. The edge of conservative annoyance has softened since then.

“I wouldn’t feel all warm and fuzzy about a McCain presidency. But in a strange way, it could be good for the conservative movement. We’ve gotten a little lax on pressing our candidates on the principles we support. If McCain becomes president, conservatives will support him when he’s right and take him to task when he’s wrong. That will make for strong conservatives in the future,” Mr. Keene said.

The overall public has been sizing up Mr. McCain, wondering if their concerns about his age outweigh their trust in his experience. But some say Mr. McCain has been hard-wired to assume the presidency, and that his victory is a matter of old-fashioned destiny.

“Throughout his personal history, John McCain has been a survivor,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, citing the visceral experiences that have distinguished the White House hopeful from his rival, Sen. Barack Obama, who is a quarter of a century younger.

As a naval aviator almost 41 years ago, Mr. McCain was shot down over North Vietnam, broke three major limbs, was bayoneted, imprisoned, tortured. The dark hair on the young man’s head turned completely white. He spent years recovering. All of it translates to a more contemporary battlefield, and ultimately could resonate in the polling booth, Mr. Bonjean said.

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