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Conservative fears about McCain are often irrational: through a 25-year career in Congress, first in the House and then in the Senate, McCain has proved himself consistently pro-life on abortion and a hawk on defense, a scourge of wasteful government spending and a generally reliable vote in favor of tax cuts. Yet at last year's Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of party power brokers, McCain was booed.
Conservative élites are the ones most likely to break out into hives at the mention of McCain's name. Former Republican House majority leader Tom DeLay has declared that he would not vote for McCain in the general election, even if Hillary Clinton were the Democratic nominee. Railing against McCain and Huckabee, both of whom he views as anathema to conservatives, talk-radio kingpin Rush Limbaugh recently warned his 13.5 million listeners, "If either of these two guys gets the nomination, it's going to destroy the Republican Party." A few days later, Limbaugh was so outraged by the possibility that Republicans might support McCain that he bellowed, "If you Republicans don't mind McCain's positions, then what is it about Hillary's positions you dislike? They're the same!"
The truth is that McCain and Clinton remain far apart on the political spectrum. But it is also true that conservatives have a lengthy bill of complaint against McCain. In the past decade he has joined with Democrats on a series of crusades in Congress with Russ Feingold on campaign-finance reform and Ted Kennedy on immigration reform that a majority of Republicans have opposed. He voted against President Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and '03, each time citing the need for fiscal restraint. And during his 2000 campaign, he labeled Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell "agents of intolerance."
He has seemed to delight in doing battle with members of his own party and creed. "John's mistake is that he makes it personal," says a close friend in Washington. "When he's convinced he's doing the right thing, he has a hard time staying above the fray." All the while and this may be what galls conservatives most McCain has been hailed by liberals and lionized in the mainstream news media for being a rebel.
This maverick reputation, so prized for its general-election appeal, makes it difficult for McCain to pass the primary threshold. As was the case in 2000, McCain in 2008 has yet to win even a plurality of Republican votes in a presidential primary outside his home state of Arizona and the generally liberal Northeast.
This frustrates McCain, something I saw over dinner with him in Washington in May 2002, when McCain told me he was probably through with running for President. He had tried it two years before and almost pulled off a historic upset against Bush. But, he said, "you can't bottle lightning." Twice during dinner, patrons went over to shake McCain's hand and urge him to run again against Bush in 2004 as an independent or Democrat. The Senator was gracious and noncommittal. But after the second time, he gave me an exaggerated roll of his eyes and shook his head. "I'm a Republican, for chrissakes!"