Republicans, unlike Democrats, like to anoint their presidential candidates early. The leading indicator is often the G.O.P. moneymen, who rush to get into the game at the first whiff of a winner. In 1998 and '99 they got behind a newcomer Texas Governor and made him the early, formidable favorite for the 2000 race. Now, although it's two years until the first primary contest of 2008, a surprising number of those very same people seem to be settling on a most ironic choice: Arizona Senator John McCain, George W. Bush's bitter adversary in 2000 and a mischiefmaker whose name has become synonymous with the cause of making money less important in politics.
Reports recently filed with the Federal Election Commission show that McCain's Straight Talk America political-action committee raised more money in the second half of last year than that of any other potential G.O.P. presidential candidate. Even more significant is the number of big-name Republican fund raisers who are climbing aboard, suggesting the beginnings of a money operation that other contenders in the party will have difficulty matching. None of McCain's new allies are more impressive than former Congressman Tom Loeffler of Texas, a mega--fund raiser for Bush. Loeffler says he has told McCain he is willing "to be your bottle washer, or I'll fix the flat on the Straight Talk Express bus." While Loeffler notes that he has been "very, very, very close friends" with McCain since the 1970s, he says McCain is finding new chums among the same Republicans who invested so much to keep him out of the White House six years ago. "The battle of 2000 is far behind," Loeffler says, "and they are looking for a winner in 2008."
In some ways, it is the most practical of calculations: conventional wisdom has it that while a Republican primary would be difficult for McCain because his maverick bent has alienated many in his party, his crossover appeal would be hard to beat in a general election, especially if the Democrats nominate a polarizing candidate like Hillary Clinton. And fund raisers, more so than party activists, have always kept their eyes focused on the next election. McCain's strategists note that he is talking a lot these days with California investor Gerald Parsky, who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Bush in 2000, and New York financier John Moran, who was Bob Dole's national finance chairman in 1996. Parsky has not picked a horse yet for 2008 and says McCain consults him primarily on economic policy. But he says of McCain, "He is a great public servant, and I think very highly of him."
The moneymen don't always make the winning bet. Just ask President John Connally or President Phil Gramm. And McCain generates little enthusiasm among much of the G.O.P. rank and file, who fume about his many apostasies, not the least of which is the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law.