- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2006

Jack Abramoff and the Iraq war may form the bridge to the presidential promised land in 2008 for Sen. John McCain, political observers said.

“If the presidential election were held today, McCain would be the Republican nominee and might well be able to defeat even Hillary Clinton,” said Free Congress Foundation President Paul M. Weyrich.

Merrill Matthews, senior analyst at the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, said the Abramoff corruption scandal “could be McCain’s ticket to the White House.”

The latest Zogby poll found the Arizona Republican’s clout with voters high across the board, with 55 percent of Republicans saying they would be more likely to vote for an office seeker if Mr. McCain supports that candidate. About the same percentage of Democrats also said they would do the same, as did 58 percent of independents.

There is irony in Mr. McCain’s image as a champion of reform, because he was the lone Republican member of the so-called “Keating Five,” a group of senators implicated in a late-1980s banking scandal.

Mr. McCain’s maverick ways have at times outraged conservatives in the GOP. But he mesmerized the press and independent voters with his 2000 campaign, defeating George W. Bush by 19 percentage points in the New Hampshire primary.

Some thought Mr. McCain might take his “Straight Talk Express” campaign bus all the way to the White House — until he drove it into a brick wall of evangelical Christian opposition. He attacked religious conservative leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance” on the day before the Virginia primary, which Mr. Bush carried by a wide margin to help sew up the Republican nomination.

Yet the scandal surrounding Abramoff — a casino lobbyist with top congressional connections who pleaded guilty to federal charges earlier this month — has added premium fuel to the McCain tank, according to Mr. Weyrich and others.

“No question, he is the front-runner for the nomination,” said Mr. Weyrich, no fan of Mr. McCain’s policy agenda. “The media love him; he gets coverage that no other Republican can get. He has campaigned for Republicans of all stripes from one end of the country to the other, so he has chips to call in.”

This is especially true with Republicans desperate for a 2008 candidate with the star power to match New York’s junior senator. The Zogby poll shows Mr. McCain handily beating Mrs. Clinton 52 percent to 37 percent in a hypothetical presidential face-off.

Continuing conflict in Iraq plays to another McCain strong suit. A Navy fighter pilot who spent years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam’s notorious “Hanoi Hilton,” Mr. McCain has military credentials that could be a trump card if Iraq remains a key issue into 2008 — appealing even to conservatives, like American Spectator Editor R. Emmett Tyrrell, who disagree with him on many other issues.

“He is a strong contender for the nomination, even with conservatives, because they think he would be a good wartime leader,” Mr. Tyrrell said.

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