Robert Novak

Some 30 invited corporate representatives and other lobbyists gathered at the Phoenix Park Hotel on Capitol Hill Tuesday morning to hear two senior mainstream Republican senators pitch the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain. They were selling him to establishment Republicans as the establishment's candidate. Nothing could be further from McCain's guerrilla-style presidential run in 2000 that nearly stopped George W. Bush.

Invitations to Tuesday's event were sent by Trent Lott, the newly elected Senate minority whip. Over coffee, Lott and Sen. Pat Roberts pushed McCain, though neither previously was seen as a McCainiac. They were not for McCain in 2000, and neither were the assembled party activists.

It is beginning to look like "McCain, Inc." -- that is, party regulars, corporate officials and Washington lawyers and lobbyists moving toward John McCain, the man it feared and loathed eight years ago. The GOP, abhorring competition and detesting surprises, likes to establish its presidential nominee well in advance.

I first appreciated this in 1996 when Robert J. Dole's candidacy was dying after he barely won in Iowa and lost New Hampshire, Arizona and Delaware. He then won eight out of eight primaries on a single Tuesday. When I asked a Dole adviser how this happened, he said it was "Dole, Inc." repelling outsiders seeking the nomination, Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan.

Viewing Republican presidential campaigns through this lens finds the corporate party selecting one candidate -- and invariably nominating him. It has nothing to do with ideology. After the establishment fiercely opposed Ronald Reagan as an extremist in 1976, he became "Reagan, Inc." in 1980. The most vivid instance was the coalition's early embrace for 2000 of "George W. Bush, Inc.," though he had little to commend him apart from his name.

In 2000, only two senators endorsed McCain: Jon Kyl, his fellow Arizonan acting out of courtesy, and maverick Nebraskan Chuck Hagel. Many at Tuesday's coffee were surprised that the e-mail inviting them came from Lott, describing his "respect" for McCain as "unparalleled." It was no sudden impulse. McCain a year ago went to Lott seeking support, and Lott then made his commitment. The major reason, Lott told me, was "electability." (McCain campaigned aggressively for Lott last month in his post-election victory for whip over Sen. Lamar Alexander.)

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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