The frontrunner?

Eliot Peace
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Posted: Jul 04, 2006 12:00 AM

Senator John McCain (R-AZ), the fourth subject in Townhall.com’s series on potential 2008 contenders, visited South Carolina Thursday, June 29th. As special guest, McCain drew in the crowds at the South Carolina Governor’s Mansion for a 2006 Republican Party fundraiser, along with Governor Mark Sanford, and US Senators Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint. Townhall.com attended both a brief media session and the event. Included here are excerpts from both the media session and McCain’s speech.

If there is a frontrunner for the 2008 GOP Presidential Nomination, Senator John McCain is it. Why? Mostly due to his name recognition from the 2000 election and his reputation as a media darling. Many remember the bad blood between the McCain folks and the Bush folks in South Carolina in 2000, when the Bush folks figuratively broke McCain’s legs and literally ended his run at the GOP nomination.

Four years later, however, after serious efforts to appeal to the GOP base and a significant effort in helping President Bush win reelection in 2004, Senator McCain has largely repaired the rifts in South Carolina. In a poll last spring of likely South Carolina Republican Primary voters, 42% of respondents indicated they would vote for McCain. However, as most potential candidates respond, Senator McCain said in response to a question on his intentions, “I have not made a decision, and I will make one early next year.”

Scott Malyerck, Executive Director of the South Carolina Republican Party, said, “Senator McCain is a true American hero and a dedicated public servant. He has always done what he believes is in the best interest of our country.

Malyerck continued, “He is working hard while traveling across the United States talking about cutting government spending and winning the war on terror. If he does decide to run for president, he will have to make many trips to South Carolina to meet and talk with grassroots activists and Bush supporters both from 2004 and 2000. There is no doubt that South Carolina, with it's "first in the south" primary, will again be a key battleground on the road to the 2008 nomination.”

Senator McCain is at times very frustrating to the conservative wing of the Republican Party. One of the most ardent critics of the pork-barrel spending epidemic and a staunch, articulate defender of the War on Terror, he also infuriates conservative Republicans with legislation such as the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, the recent amnesty proposal, and the “Gang of 14” (though he was exonerated on the effectiveness of the “Gang of 14”).

In 2000, two of McCain’s biggest supporters were then-Congressmen Mark Sanford and Lindsey Graham. After the primary defeat, many thought their support of McCain in a solid Bush state would ruin the two Congressmen. Six years later, Sanford is finishing his first term as Governor, and Graham is the state’s senior Senator. Of Republicans in the state, Graham is the most popular by far (despite his own head-scratching actions at times) and Sanford remains especially popular among conservative Republicans. Armed with two powerful allies, McCain aims possibly to use those advantages to help him snag the 2008 nomination.

As expected, Senator McCain first commented on the June 29th ruling by the Supreme Court that the military tribunals of Guantanamo terrorists were unconstitutional. He said, “It’s time to move the process forward,” adding, “the Court wants the legislature involved.” McCain, along with Senator Graham, indicated that the Congress would approve the appropriate legislation (hearings have already been scheduled for the Armed Services Committee, on which McCain and Graham sit) to allow the Bush Administration to prosecute terrorists in military tribunals. Both senators were adamant that the military tribunal is the appropriate venue for such trials, with Senator Graham adding, “The Supreme Court has given us a roadmap to follow. The military tribunal is the proper form to try these people.”

When alerted to the fact that South Carolina will have a constitutional amendment on the ballot to protect traditional marriage in November and asked about his support of such efforts, Senator McCain responded, “I am the honorary Chairman of a similar effort in Arizona.” His comments, combined with his vote against the Federal Marriage Amendment in early June seem to indicate he supports protecting marriage at the state level, but not at the federal level.

When introducing Senator McCain to the crowd of Republican donors and activists, Senator Graham said, “I don’t know anybody [besides McCain] in the world who is more frugal with a dollar.” Certainly, McCain is the most ardent critic of the pork-barrel and federal spending epidemic infecting Congress today. He said, I’m going to give some straight-talk…we’ve got to get our spending under control or our base WILL NOT turn out in November,” later adding, “Congress spends like a drunken sailor.” He alluded to the oft-cited example of President Reagan’s veto of the highway bill with 152 earmarks and compared that to last year’s highway bill with over 6000 earmarks. “We cannot do that,” McCain fervently insisted.

Speaking on Iraq, Senator McCain discussed the Senate debate last week on withdrawing the troops. He said the two versions, one requiring a timetable and one without (“More dangerous,” he added) were not the answer to Iraq. McCain identified three conditions for withdrawing from Iraq. First, he said, “We must improve the economy, so people have better lives.” Secondly, he said, “They must have a functioning government.” McCain talked about how the length of time between the election and the formation of the new government was frustrating, but “now they have a freely elected government in place.” Lastly, McCain added “How do we get Americans out? By training the Iraqi military and police force.” Then, he said, “we will gradually withdraw to enclaves.”

“When we win [in Iraq],” McCain argued, “democracy is contagious.” “And if we fail, we will fight the War on Terror on US soil.”

So there it is. John McCain, so infuriating at times for conservatives, speaks their language on several important issues: the war, spending, raising money for Republicans. Yet on some other issues, he still stands opposite the GOP base. Will both sides look past their differences in 2008? With Hillary looming, will Republicans choose McCain as the best option to defeat her? Will McCain even join the fray that will be the 2008 Primary? Eighteen months out from the 2008 Republican Primary in South Carolina, McCain appears to be in good shape, but in the world of politics, that’s a lifetime.