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McCain loses some of his rebel edge

THE NATION

Because he has aligned himself more closely with Bush, past primary supporters may defect, political experts say.

March 17, 2007|Janet Hook and Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Derek Patterson is just the kind of voter that made John McCain a star on the national political scene.

Patterson, a teacher in Lancaster, N.H., was one of the thousands of independents who were attracted to the Arizona senator's maverick presidential campaign in 2000, propelling his upset victory over George W. Bush in the state's primary, first up in the election season.

But as McCain returns to New Hampshire today on his second quest for the presidency, Patterson worries that many erstwhile supporters will desert the Republican lawmaker because he has spent much of the last seven years courting the Bush establishment and the party's conservative base.

"He was the anti-Bush," Patterson said. "It soured a lot of people when he became like Bush-light."

That is in part why McCain, once widely seen as the front-runner for the GOP's 2008 presidential nod, has failed to live up to that presumption. Instead, recent nationwide polls have shown him trailing former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani by as much as 20 percentage points among Republican voters.

McCain advisors are betting he can recover by dint of a huge fundraising machine and strong local political operations, especially in the key early primary states New Hampshire and South Carolina.

But his standing in those two states, while illustrating his strengths, also illuminate his weaknesses as he tries to shake off the impression that his campaign is flagging.

In New Hampshire, he is laboring to convince the state's famously independent voters that he is still the plain speaker they embraced in 2000. But he is weighted down by vast burdens, above all his outspoken support for President Bush's Iraq war strategy. The war is highly unpopular among the state's independents.

In South Carolina, where Republicans in 2000 stampeded to Bush and effectively buried McCain's candidacy, he is reaping the benefits of a more durable political operation than the slapdash campaign he built seven years ago. McCain has made himself the early favorite of the state party leadership, racking up scores of endorsements, just as he has in many other states.

But whether in New Hampshire, South Carolina or elsewhere, McCain is struggling with the challenge of adopting his new role as the favorite of party insiders while preserving the outsider status that was central to his appeal in 2000.

This week, McCain has tried to recapture some of his old magic by touring Iowa and, barring snow troubles today, New Hampshire, in a bus dubbed the "Straight Talk Express," just as it was seven years ago. Yet even supporters concede he is running a very different campaign that lacks the exuberance of his first White House run.

"It's very hard to put lightning back in the bottle" said former Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), national co-chairman of the McCain campaign. "In 2000, he was thought of as an insurgent candidate, the darling of independents, but he has lost some of that support. It's still up for grabs."

As he campaigned this week in Iowa, scheduled to hold the opening caucuses of 2008, McCain stood his ground on the war, jabbing at Democrats in Congress for trying to force Bush to pull U.S. troops from Iraq.

"If we set a date for withdrawal, we set a date for defeat," he said at a forum Thursday in Ames.

A strong showing in Iowa is crucial for McCain to build momentum for the early primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina. But in those three states, McCain has held a lead in surveys of GOP voters only in South Carolina -- and his margin there has been a narrow one.

A key edge for McCain in South Carolina is his formidable organization. Many of the state's heavyweight donors who backed Bush in 2000 are now behind McCain. And scores of elected Republicans have endorsed him, among them Sen. Lindsey Graham and state Atty. Gen. Henry McMaster.

"By sheer numbers, McCain is the establishment candidate this time," said Terry Sullivan, South Carolina campaign director for GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.

The overwhelming institutional support, however, clearly clashes with the party-rebel image of McCain's 2000 campaign.

The 70-year-old lawmaker also lacks the "sparkle" and "fire" of his campaign, said Neal Thigpen, a political science professor at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C.

Thigpen, who backed McCain in 2000, is neutral in the 2008 race.

In a conservative state with large military and veteran populations, McCain's support for the Iraq war has not been the liability it could prove to be in New Hampshire.

But McCain has had limited success mending fences with the religious conservatives who dominate turnout in South Carolina's GOP primaries. Although he has long opposed abortion rights, McCain irked many in 2000 by branding the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "agents of intolerance."

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