Sen. John McCain’s reputation as a maverick who regularly bucks the conservative wing of his party will be a formidable obstacle for Sen. Barack Obama as he seeks to persuade moderates to vote for him in November.
Once dubbed the Democrats’ favorite Republican - and the recipient of a gushing endorsement by the liberal New York Times during this year’s primary campaign - Mr. McCain’s bigger-than-life image as a middle-of-the-road politician is a proven draw of moderates and independents, who are in the position to decide which candidate wins the White House.
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“The Republicans stumbled into the best nominee they could have gotten,” said Democratic strategist Liz Chadderdon. “The Republican brand is in the toilet and they found the one guy who doesn’t fit the Republican brand. I think his ‘maverick’ status is a huge help to him. If he was a typical Republican, given how people feel about generic Republicans right now, we would win in a walk,” she said.
Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh agreed, saying, “Much of John McCain’s maverick image was largely defined eight years ago when he ran against Bush and lost.
“There is a premium on defining yourself for the voters before your opponent does it for you. For many voters in the country and especially in a state like New Hampshire, John McCain’s maverick image is alive and well. That is going to be a challenge for the Obama campaign.”
Although conservatives bristle about Mr. McCain’s proclivity to cross party lines to vote with Democrats, a glance at his voting record over 25 years in the Senate portrays a solid Republican. For instance, he voted for every item on the Republicans’ Contract With America, the document penned by conservatives in 1994 that called for shrinking the federal government, cutting taxes and reforming welfare.
The senator from Arizona, a staunch pro-lifer, has an American Conservative Union rating of 82, not a top-rated conservative but certainly a solid member. As Mr. Obama regularly points out, Mr. McCain voted in line with President Bush’s wishes 95 percent of the time in 2007, and 100 percent of the time so far this year.
But Mr. McCain also has bucked his party often, and on several high-profile issues. He attached his name to McCain-Feingold, a campaign-finance reform bill co-authored by Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, that Republicans opposed. He also joined forces with a liberal leader, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, via the McCain-Kennedy bill to overhaul immigration. Many Republicans opposed the bill.
Still, some say those against-the-grain transgressions could help more than harm Mr. McCain.
“He certainly is the best candidate Republicans could have selected to bring in independents, and very likely Reagan Democrats and blue-collar workers,” said James Thurber, a political scientist at American University. “Obama has to focus on those populations. … The maverick side makes it difficult for Obama.”
Mr. McCain’s independent streak made him popular with the media in 2000, when he ran against the conservatives’ choice, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. “Democrats and the media loved the guy whenever he took shots at Bush’s extreme policies,” said Democratic strategist Bud Jackson. “It made for interesting copy and for fun barroom conversation.”
Even reporters on the Straight Talk Express, Mr. McCain’s campaign bus, began to swoon at his frank interview style, with ABC political reporter Linda Douglass saying: “He’s clearly winning us all over, and we have to be careful about that.” (The reporter recently joined the Obama campaign as a strategist and spokeswoman.)
Although Mr. McCain’s appeal faded in that campaign, he has returned this cycle with much of his maverick image intact. That reputation will be crucial to his ability to draw independent and moderate voters, which some election analysts say makes up nearly a third of the electorate.
The Michigan electorate, for example, is split 40 percent to 40 percent between the two parties, with 20 percent or so calling themselves independents, said state pollster Ed Sarpolus. “Without independents, neither party can win the state. If John McCain doesn’t convince independents to come on over, he can’t beat Barack Obama here,” he said.