For decades, Republican presidential candidates have rallied the party’s base by warning against a federal judiciary filled with liberal appointments, but many conservative activists and pollsters are skeptical that the issue will work well for Sen. John McCain.
Long-standing distrust of Mr. McCain and the composition of the Senate fuel the conservative doubts, although some Republicans think the judges issue can help their party win the White House, particularly in light of the recent 5-4 decision that gave foreign terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay the right to go to court.
Among those noting doubts about Mr. McCain’s conservative bona fides was Sue Lowden, chairman of the Nevada Republican Party.
“So far, the thought of liberal appointments to the Supreme Court has not energized our base here in Nevada,” she said. “We have many in Nevada who are part of the Ron Paul brigade. They would rather lose the presidential election than have McCain.
“Maybe McCain will catch fire, if he comes more often,” Mrs. Lowden said. “We are a swing state, and I’m worried.”
Rob Haney, a Republican Party committee member from Arizona, Mr. McCain’s state, said any judicial appointments would have to pass muster with a Democrat-led Senate. Under such a scenario in 1987, President Reagan had to replace his Supreme Court nominee, Robert Bork, with Anthony M. Kennedy.
“With the probable Democrat gains in the Senate, coupled with the liberal Republicans already there, such as Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Arlen Specter, what does it matter that McCain says he will appoint conservative judges?” Mr. Haney said. “He will take what the liberals give him.”
Mr. Haney is a vigorous critic of Mr. McCain on immigration and campaign-finance issues and said the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is not the man of the right he claims to be.
“He can say he kept his promise to appoint conservatives because the judges are just as conservative as he is,” he said. “And he has already told us how conservative he is.”
Others are less skeptical.
“Everywhere I go, I start my remarks by saying: ‘The most important issue in the presidential election we have as well as our greatest opportunity is judges, judges, judges. Their decisions will extend the McCain presidency long past his term of office. These judges will help fulfill a conservative dream going back some 30-plus years when Richard Nixon nominated William Rehnquist to the Supreme Court,’” said Bruce Ash, an Arizona member of the Republican National Committee. “Wherever I speak, these words bring down the house.”
The issue dates back to the “Impeach Earl Warren” billboards of the 1950s.
Longtime Republican Party pollster Ed Goeas sees little evidence over the years that the judicial argument is successful. He noted that Republicans leaned heavily on the issue during the 1992 and 1996 election campaigns and were defeated both times.
“I have never seen it have much impact,” Mr. Goeas said. “The political environment is so driven by big issues: the war in Iraq, the economy, gas prices and health care, and I do not see this really surfacing in any substantial way.”