Some top Republicans at odds with Sen. John McCain on core conservative issues say privately that the party’s 2008 presidential nomination is “his to lose.”
They cite the Arizona senator’s head start in fundraising, a primary calendar that is shaping up in his favor and a growing belief that he enjoys the tacit support of President Bush.
In state after state, Mr. McCain has been passing out money to Republican candidates for other offices, to state party organizations and even to Republican county chairmen. Extending such largess to the county level is unheard of in pre-nomination campaign maneuvering, party officials say.
Now, one of the most widely respected conservatives in the country says he is ready to help pull the McCain campaign bandwagon whenever the senator makes his 2008 Republican presidential run official.
“He is the only person I know who is running and capable of getting elected who is tough enough to do what needs to be done,” says former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, who has quietly been helping to write Mr. McCain’s speeches. “He will veto spending bills and earmarks and stand up to the Social Security and Medicare challenges that will fall in the next president’s lap with the baby boomer retirement.”
For some luminaries on the right, Mr. Gramm and Mr. McCain make an odd couple at best.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” former Majority Leader Tom DeLay said after being told of Mr. Gramm’s support for Mr. McCain. “Though in a sense, I’m not surprised. They’ve been friends.”
Mr. McCain was national chairman of Mr. Gramm’s 1996 presidential campaign.
The two have had their disagreements.
Throughout his seven years in the House and 17 years in the Senate, Mr. Gramm was considered a strong defender of the First and Second amendments. He opposed what he saw as infringements on free speech in the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, as well as Mr. McCain’s one-time alliance with the gun-control lobby.
Mr. Gramm acknowledges his differences with Mr. McCain.
“There are plenty of things I don’t agree with John on, but I don’t think they are important, compared to things I do agree with him on,” the former Texas A&M University economics professor said.
Mr. McCain’s relationship with Mr. Bush seems to have improved since their heated nomination battle in 2000. The senator crisscrossed the country in 2004, campaigning for Mr. Bush’s re-election, and he supported the president on the Iraq war, immigration policy and, eventually, making Mr. Bush’s tax cuts permanent.
“What I’ve heard seems plausible to me — that a deal was cut that if McCain supported Bush in 2004, the Bush team would get behind McCain for 2008,” Republican media consultant Tom Edmonds says.
Among those who have signed on with Mr. McCain are Mark McKinnon, Mr. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaign media strategist, and Terry Nelson, Mr. Bush’s 2004 national political director.
A senior Republican senator from a Western state who opposes Mr. McCain says privately, “Look at who he’s got in his camp and look at him in the polls — I’m telling you there’s no one out there strong enough to beat him. It’s his to lose.”
The 2008 primary schedule appears to be an advantage for Mr. McCain.
The senator bypassed the 2000 Iowa caucuses but trounced Mr. Bush in the New Hampshire primary, lost in South Carolina the following week, but then won Michigan. This year, a group of Western states — Arizona, New Mexico and Utah — have primaries scheduled a week after New Hampshire.
In primaries without a sitting president, “no Republican who has won the nomination has ever won both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary,” says former Reagan White House political director Frank J. Donatelli. “So McCain doesn’t have to win both to get the nomination.”
According to a poll by American Research Group taken in May, Mr. McCain leads Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in Utah 37 percent to 22 percent. In Arizona, Mr. McCain leads his nearest rival, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, 59 percent to 3 percent, and in New Mexico, he leads the field at 38 percent. His nearest rival in that state is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 5 percent.
Nationally, the June 1-4 Cook Political Report poll of 874 registered voters has Mr. McCain leading with 29 percent and former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani second with 24 percent. Mr. Romney, Mr. Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Virginia Sen. George Allen and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo are all in single digits.
The same poll found Mr. McCain beating Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, 47 percent to 40 percent in a general election matchup, just outside the poll’s error margin.