Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, has been busily repairing or replacing his positions on two key GOP issues: abortion and tax cuts.

His actions in the last month were aimed at ending estranged relations with two powerful constituencies in his party's base: economic and social conservatives, who, at best, view him with some suspicion or, at worst, do not trust him to defend their most deeply held beliefs.

His vote to extend some of President Bush's tax cuts, after opposing them for years, and a remark supporting the repeal of Roe v. Wade, may have eased relations with both groups. But they also raised troubling questions about the depth of his convictions.

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McCain voted last month to continue Bush's tax cuts on capital gains and dividends, among other tax cuts contained in a $70 billion Tax Relief Extension Reconciliation Act, now in a House-Senate conference.

But his vote was a sharp reversal of his anti-tax-cut posture that came at a time when he has been courting economic conservatives who fear that, as president, he would oppose further tax cuts and might even roll back Bush's tax reductions to shrink the budget deficits.

Indeed, as welcome as it was, his vote only deepened the measure of distrust among many conservatives who said he did it solely for political reasons, not because of any deeply held beliefs that tax cuts spur growth.

"It's a big flip-flop, but I'm happy that he's flopped," said Grover Norquist, the Americans for Tax Reform president and tax-cut crusader.

But Norquist says McCain still has to prove his tax-cut is bona fide. "He has two years to convince people this is not a political ploy but a road to Damascus" change in his fundamental beliefs, he told me.

Other supply-siders who fought the tax-cut battles alongside Ronald Reagan were similarly distrustful of McCain's flip-flop.

"It looks political to me. It runs counter to his whole past behavior. He's got to appeal to the [conservative] base of the party, because I don't think there is a Republican in the land who can get the nomination [voting] against the tax cuts," said veteran economic strategist Larry Hunter, a senior fellow at the Policy Institute for Innovation.

At the heart of this suspicion about McCain's motives is the belief he is not a Reaganite on tax-cut issues, which are at the core of the GOP's agenda. "He's a conservative on some things and not on others. He's certainly not a supply-sider," Hunter said. "He doesn't subscribe to the Reagan economic approach that tax cuts stimulate increased growth."

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.