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Kerry Keeps Recruiting, McCain Keeps Resisting

Their seven talks have all ended the same way: in a friendly but firm 'no,' a source confirms.

June 12, 2004|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — John F. Kerry had more than half a dozen conversations with Sen. John McCain about the prospect of him joining the Democratic presidential ticket, but the Arizona Republican repeatedly told his longtime friend that he was not interested, according to an associate close to McCain.

The Massachusetts senator broached the idea with McCain at least seven times, first raising it about 2 1/2 months ago, the source said Friday. All the conversations occurred over the phone but one, which took place on the floor of the Senate.

The last conversation was about a week ago, the McCain associate said. Each time, he said, McCain "respectfully declined, but firmly."

Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was careful not to formally offer McCain the position. But he did raise the prospect of a joint bipartisan ticket.

McCain's Senate office on Friday did not return a call about the matter, and aides to Kerry would not comment on the topic.

The account of McCain's associate, who agreed to be interviewed only on condition of anonymity, provided the first confirmation of Kerry's interest in the Arizona senator as a potential running mate, a position McCain has repeatedly said he would not accept.

But the notion of the two decorated Vietnam War veterans running together has proved irresistible to many Democrats, who have been speculating about it since McCain briefly left himself open to the possibility in March.

Many Democratic strategists believe that McCain's crossover popularity as a Republican maverick, as well as his rapport with Kerry, would increase their chances of defeating President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney by drawing votes from independents and swing voters, and perhaps some Republicans.

For Kerry to choose McCain as his running mate would be seen as a bold choice and an indication of his desire to bring a more bipartisan mood to Washington, some hoped.

In a recent CBS News poll, a hypothetical Kerry-McCain ticket beat Bush and Cheney, 53% to 39%.

McCain's contentious history with Bush -- whom he challenged in the 2000 Republican presidential primary -- and his open respect for Kerry, a longtime friend, has spurred the conjecture. In one interview in March, McCain disputed the Bush campaign's characterization of the Massachusetts senator as "weak on defense."

But there are substantial policy differences between Kerry and McCain, raising questions among Democrats and Republicans about the feasibility of a bipartisan White House.

For instance, McCain has strongly supported the war in Iraq, while Kerry has chided Bush for not building more international support before the U.S. attack was launched. McCain is also on the opposite side of most Democrats on core economic and social issues, such as trade and abortion rights.

In dismissing the notion of a joint ticket, McCain described himself as a "pro-life, free-trading, defense and deficit hawk."

But he is not a Republican who toes the party line. He gained national attention -- and the enmity of leaders from his own party -- when he began pushing for campaign finance reform in the mid 1990s and refused to let go until its passage in 2002. He also has differed with the GOP on the growing federal deficit. Last month, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert questioned McCain's loyalty to the party for demanding that the government pay for its current expenses before doling out more tax cuts.

McCain's independent streak is at the root of his popularity, and raised his profile as an attractive running mate.

The possibility of a Kerry-McCain ticket has been simultaneously promoted and discounted by people close to both men, all with competing agendas.

Some McCain aides have enjoyed needling the Bush campaign with the idea of the maverick Republican joining forces with the presumptive Democratic nominee, while others think he should distance himself from the concept. Meanwhile, some Democrats have actively promoted the notion of a bipartisan ticket, hoping to win McCain over.

Speculation about whether the Arizona senator could be persuaded to run with Kerry spiked in early March, when McCain said he would entertain the idea. Within hours, however, he issued a statement ruling out such a move.

Since then, McCain has repeatedly denied that he would accept such an offer.

"I've said categorically -- categorically -- I will not be vice president of the United States," he told NBC's "Meet the Press" on May 16. "I will not be a candidate. And I mean that."

"I am a loyal Republican," he added. "I am supporting President Bush's reelection."

Last week, McCain submitted petition signatures to run for his fourth Senate term this fall, effectively barring him from competing in another race.

With the Arizona senator apparently taking himself out of the competition to be Kerry's running mate, the focus will presumably move to the other candidates mentioned as possible vice-presidential picks.

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