View Full Version : In Limbo in Washington, McCain Comes Alive in Iowa

02-19-07, 07:21 AM
In Limbo in Washington, McCain Comes Alive in Iowa
Campaigning for Conservatives, He Plays Up Fiscal Discipline

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 19, 2007; A04

DAVENPORT, Iowa, Feb. 18 -- Former Texas senator Phil Gramm was wrapping up his introduction in Des Moines on Saturday morning when a white-haired man wearing gray slacks and a big, brown leather jacket ambled up the aisle and stopped at the side of the stage, the curl of a smile on his lips.

It was Sen. John McCain.

Back in Washington, McCain has shown little of the exuberance of the Republican outsider who challenged George W. Bush for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000. Now virtually hostage to the success of Bush's Iraq war policy, which he has defended and criticized, McCain has appeared subdued, even dour.

In interviews, the Arizona Republican has spoken almost in monotone, defending his support for sending more troops into battle in Iraq. On NBC's "Meet the Press" recently, his body language conveyed distinct discomfort with the constant attention he receives about the war's potential impact on his presidential aspirations.

But as he campaigned across Iowa this weekend, there were flashes of the old McCain. During town hall meetings in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Davenport, he staunchly defended his position on the war, decried a Republican Party that he said has lost its way and punctuated question-and-answer sessions with his particular brand of humor.

"I had my glass of ethanol this morning, and I'm feeling good," he said to ripples of laughter as he delivered his opening remarks to a jampacked audience in a Des Moines hotel ballroom. "I hope you did, too. Tastes good."

When a man said he was serving in the Marines in Vietnam around the time McCain was being held in a North Vietnamese prison camp, the senator interjected, "Why didn't you come get me?"

As the audience broke into laughter, the man responded, "Marines always love to rescue the Navy when they get the chance."

"That's what you get for being a smart [expletive]," McCain said of being turned into the butt of the joke.

A young man in Davenport said pointedly: "You ditched Iowa in 2000. Why should we support you?" The candidate responded, to peals of laughter: "You know, we should never let these young punks in. No respect. You remind me of my own kids."

The ethanol joke was not lost on anyone, either. When he ran for president eight years ago, McCain skipped the Iowa caucuses, saying he did not have the resources to compete both there and in New Hampshire. But many Republicans suspected that his opposition to ethanol subsidies, vital to the Iowa economy, influenced his decision to stay out of the state.

McCain lost that first race for president after a bitter fight with Bush, who proved more adept at appealing to the Republican base. Now back for a second try for the GOP nomination, support for ethanol -- he says it is economically justifiable now that oil prices have risen -- is just one of a number of things he has been willing to swallow to try to win.

The McCain team is focused on building an infrastructure of financial and political support second to none in the GOP field. The candidate himself, whose formal announcement will come next month, is determined to make himself acceptable to Republicans who spurned him the last time around.

McCain's path to the nomination is made less difficult by the absence of a top-tier candidate with the ability to consolidate the conservative base of the party. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is far more liberal on social issues than McCain is, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is struggling to explain his conversion from a social moderate in the 1990s to an ardent conservative now that he is running for president.

McCain advisers believe he can change attitudes among many culturally conservative voters and win the nomination as the favorite of the GOP establishment. On what was McCain's first campaign swing through Iowa since setting up his presidential campaign committee, the differences between 2000 and today were evident.

Seeking the 2000 nomination, McCain ran as a maverick and a reformer, an appeal that played especially well with independent voters. This time he presents himself as the candidate who can restore core principles to the Republican Party, which he says became intoxicated by power before losing its congressional majorities in the 2006 midterm elections.

His message this time is more overtly conservative, and his campaign identifies more openly with the socially conservative wing of the party. McCain and his advisers stress his quarter-century record of support for antiabortion legislation, and when it came time for an opening prayer on Saturday morning, McCain's Iowa chairman, David Roederer, made sure the audience knew that the campaign's Maxine Sieleman, who hosts a daily Christian radio show that airs throughout the state, is "one of Iowa's leading social conservatives."

McCain still has issues with conservative Republicans over immigration and a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and he supports stem cell research. Some conservatives will have to be convinced that the man who trashed Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson eight years ago is truly one of them now, although he has patched up with Falwell.

A longtime scourge of pork-barrel spending and a proponent of fiscal discipline, McCain is well positioned on an issue that has gained more currency among conservative Republicans because of the mushrooming spending during Bush's presidency. "I'll veto every pork-barrel bill that comes across my desk, and I'll make the people famous who put it in," he said in Cedar Rapids. "I promise you."

Across Iowa on Saturday, Gramm, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination in 1996 but remains a symbol of fiscal conservatism within the party, helped reinforce that message. "We need a president who will stop the spending spree, balance the budget and make the Bush tax cuts permanent -- and that's what John McCain will do," he said.

McCain's hopes for winning the White House may be tied directly to Iraq. A majority of Republicans agree with Bush's plan to add combat troops there, and neither Giuliani nor Romney has staked out a position different from McCain's or the president's on the preeminent issue facing the country. But as the Senate's leading proponent of the Bush plan, McCain has put himself at odds with a majority of the American people.

"The one thing I'm sure of is, next January when the Iowa caucuses take place, it will be a very different scenario in Iraq than now," he told reporters aboard his chartered plane as he flew between Cedar Rapids and Davenport on Saturday. "So if we're starting to show success, then obviously the fact that I supported this is good. If it continues to deteriorate . . . ." He trailed off. No one needed him to finish the sentence.

When a reporter suggested that his fate ultimately may not be in his hands, McCain replied: "Yep. That's why I can't worry about it and I don't worry about it. There's nothing I can do about it."