By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The troubled launch of Democratic President Barack Obama's healthcare website could give Republicans a chance to regain some of the political ground they lost during the recent government shutdown, Republican Senator John McCain said on Monday.
The Arizona senator, a vocal critic of conservative Republicans who held up government funding for 16 days while demanding changes to Obama's healthcare law, said the federal shutdown was devastating to many people in his state. Republicans "have our work cut out for us" to improve their image after polls indicated that more Americans blamed them for the fiscal impasse, he said.
But the problems associated with the rollout of the online insurance exchanges at the heart of "Obamacare" have raised questions about the government's readiness to help insure millions of Americans who have no health coverage. They also have given Republicans a chance to claim that some of their criticisms of the healthcare law have been validated.
"Obamacare's failures may soften this blow" for Republicans, McCain, the party's 2008 presidential nominee, told the Reuters Washington Summit. "The debacle that is associated with Obamacare is quickly going to capture the attention of Americans all over the country."
Obama held an event in the White House's Rose Garden on Monday to try to stem the political damage from the problems on the healthcare.gov website, which include error messages and long waits for many of those looking for information about insurance coverage options under Obamacare.
The difficulties with the healthcare law have quickly turned the public debate away from the federal shutdown and near government default, a political stalemate that was stoked by Tea Party conservatives led by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
McCain has criticized Cruz for pushing Republicans into an unwinnable confrontation with Democrats by demanding that Obamacare be delayed or defunded - demands that McCain and many other Republicans have called unrealistic as long as Obama is president and the Senate is controlled by Democrats.
However, McCain acknowledged on Monday that Cruz had exploited a rich vein of public anger about the economy and government.
"I think he's very smart, he is very articulate. He's very good at what he does. He tapped into an anger, a discontent out there," McCain said.
NOT 'CONFUSED BY THE FACTS'
McCain added he thought that Cruz - who is scheduled to appear at the Reuters Washington Summit on Thursday - "really believed (he) could force this showdown to the point where the Democrats and the president would cave.
"When people believe in things as passionately as he does," McCain said, "they don't get confused by the facts."
Congress passed a short-term extension of government funding and the government's debt ceiling, setting up the potential for more fiscal battles in early 2014. But McCain said he hoped Republicans had learned a lesson after reading polls and listening to constituents while lawmakers are at home on break this week.
"I think Republicans almost all have recognized that this whole exercise was a failure," McCain said.
"I'll bet you that after this week, that when my colleagues in the Senate come back they will be getting the same message that I got here in Arizona: 'Why did you do it? Why in the world would you do such a thing to us?' And I don't have a very good answer to that," McCain said.
CONCERN ABOUT PARTY'S DIRECTION
McCain said the Republican feud between hardline Tea Party conservatives and more pragmatic lawmakers had produced unelectable, far-right Republican candidates whose election losses cost Republicans at least five Senate seats and possibly a majority in that chamber during the last two elections.
McCain said he will work next year to support Senate incumbents such as his friend Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, as well as Lamar Alexander in Tennessee and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.
"I worry a lot about" Republicans losing elections because their candidates are too conservative for many voters, McCain said.
"We need to recognize that they're a part of our party, but they're not the only element in our party, even though they are very active," he said.
McCain, 77, is up for re-election in Arizona in 2016, and he said Monday that he was "inclined" to run for the Senate again in three years, when he would be 80. He added that he would not decide officially for another year or so.
"I'm really looking at it very seriously," McCain said of seeking a sixth six-year term. "I would have to give it a final decision, but certainly I am inclined to do so."
(Additional reporting by Paige Gance, Caren Bohan, Thomas Ferraro, Richard Cowan and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by David Lindsey and Eric Walsh)