From The Sunday Times

February 3, 2008

Right rallies to halt John McCain as he marches to Super Tuesday

Tony Allen-Mills, Chicago

HE may be on the cusp of a historic triumph in the Republican presidential race, but in Chicago last Friday night John McCain saw no reason to change a word of the well-worn stump speech that has carried his campaign from the brink of collapse last year to within sight of winning the White House.

He still told the same dreadful Irish joke about the O’Reilly twins getting drunk in Dublin. His wife Cindy once again introduced him with a rambling tale about his virtues as a husband and father. Nor has he changed his signature political slogan. “I’ve gotta give you straight talk,” he said. “It’s a tough war in Iraq.”

Yet much has changed for the maverick senator from Arizona since his pivotal victory in last Tuesday’s Florida primary. For the first time since voting began in Iowa last month, the Republicans have a clear frontrunner.

Barring any last-minute resurrection by Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who had pinned his hopes on upsetting McCain in Florida, the 71-year-old senator should emerge from the Republicans’ 21 Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses this week with the nomination firmly within his grasp.
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It has, by any standards, proved a stunning comeback by a candidate whose campaign was in such disarray a year ago that his colleagues labelled him a “dead man walking”.

Yet not everyone in the Republican party is thrilled that McCain has emerged as its likely champion. The senator declared on Friday that the support he had received was “marvellous”. But the view among many conservatives was best summed up by Rush Limbaugh, the popular right-wing talk show host.

If McCain is elected president, Limbaugh warned, “it’s going to destroy the Republican party”. Limbaugh’s brother David, also a right-wing commentator, went further: “McCain built a reputation as a maverick by stabbing his party in the back – by betraying conservative principles.”

The party’s evangelical wing was trying to mobilise late last week for a last push in favour of Romney. But the continuing presence in the Republican race of Mike Huckabee, the former Baptist preacher from Arkansas, was expected to divide the conservative vote and allow McCain to cruise to decisive victory in big states such as California, New York and Illinois.

As one Republican contest seemed to be ending, it was clear another was under way – for the ideological soul of an exhausted party that may struggle for years to recover from the unpopular presidency of George W Bush. The question for many of Bush’s former allies was: what kind of Republican is John McCain? Indeed, is he a Republican at all?

“He tries to talk the [conservative] talk, but he has never walked the walk,” said David Bossie, president of Citizens United, a right-wing pressure group running anti-McCain television advertisements describing the senator as “surprisingly liberal”. Amid warnings that no Republican can hope to reach the White House without the support of conservative voters, the party’s evangelical wing has become embroiled in a fratricidal debate over McCain’s perceived ideological failings.

Some right-wing critics have taken the pragmatic view that any Republican, however unorthodox, is better than Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in the White House. “Someone who agrees with you 80% of the time is not your enemy,” noted Alvin Felzenberg, a conservative presidential historian.

Yet it is also clear that over the decades McCain’s trenchant independent streak has alienated many in his party. He has championed restraints on campaign fundraising, denying Republicans a long-held advantage. He has opposed tax cuts that conservatives regard as sacred.

Then there is his sympathy for illegal immigrants who work hard and pay their taxes in the hope of achieving citizenship: McCain regards them as potential assets, while his critics dismiss them as criminals. He has also upset senatorial colleagues by taking aim at their cherished home state projects – so-called “pork barrel” spending.

All this encouraged Ann Coulter, a glamorous conservative media icon, to declare last week that she would vote for Clinton rather than McCain.

Yet even McCain’s most ferocious critic has to admit that there is no one in American politics with as compelling a personal history. His record as a former Vietnamese prisoner-of-war is only one chapter in a near-incredible saga of brushes with death, political acrobatics and occasionally ugly mistakes.

McCain is both the grandson and son of US Navy admirals. Like his forebears, he attended the US naval academy in Annapolis, where he somehow managed to finish 894th out of 899 officers, despite having an IQ of 133.

As a navy pilot, he crashed his first plane in 1958 and another in 1965. He also escaped a devastating fire that killed 132 men on board the aircraft carrier USS For-restal in 1967.

Later that year, his Vietnam ordeal began when, on his 23rd bombing mission over Hanoi, he was shot down with a surface-to-air missile. He would spend 5½ years as a prisoner, including 31 months in solitary confinement.

At one point, after learning that his father was an admiral, his captors offered him early release. He refused on the grounds that men who had been held longer than him should be released first.

He was badly tortured for his insolence – he routinely addressed his captors as “slant-eyed c***suckers” – and one of his fellow captives said later: “I’ve seen some dead bodies that looked at least as good as John.” McCain still bears the scars of his beatings, cannot raise his arms above his head and needs help with everyday chores such as combing his hair.

In the decades that followed his release in 1973, McCain built a political power base in Arizona as congressman and senator. As a military hero who had survived unimaginable hardship, he became a respected national security powerhouse. Most recently, he supported the US military surge in Iraq when many of his colleagues were trying to back away.

McCain’s military record has tended to overshadow his economic views, and his rivals have attempted to portray him as economically illiterate at a time when recession is looming. McCain once admitted that “the issue of economics is not something I have understood as well as I should”.

Yet Romney’s attempts to attack McCain’s economic expertise in Florida failed to produce the breakthrough the former governor needed. And there were signs last week that economic conservatives – an anti-tax group distinct from their evangelical cousins – were beginning to warm to recent McCain promises to support future tax cuts.

It was in 1999 that McCain decided to mount his first challenge for the Republican presidential nomination. He ran against Bush and quickly fell victim to some of the dirtiest tricks on record in a White House race.

False rumours circulated in South Carolina that he had fathered an illegitimate black child. Then it was suggested that his Vietnam prison experiences had left him mentally unhinged and prone to fits of rage. Bush strolled to the nomination, and McCain’s presidential ambitions appeared to be finished for good.

When McCain announced last year that he was planning a second presidential run, many Republicans expressed concern about his age – he would be the oldest incoming president. There were also doubts that he could withstand the hostility of evangelical Christians. This was, after all, the candidate who once dismissed Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, two of the country’s most influential right-wing preachers, as “agents of intolerance”.

For a while it seemed his critics were right: at one point last year McCain was laying off campaign staff, key advisers abandoned him and he almost ran out of money. But when he trounced Romney in New Hampshire, his “straight talk” campaign was reborn.

McCain is still seen by many of his party colleagues as uncomfortably close to the Democrats. In 2004 John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, briefly considered McCain as a bi-partisan vice-presidential running mate.

Yet he has also benefited from a striking lack of decisive support for any of his Republican rivals, all of whom are seen as flawed by one section of the party or another.

McCain may have been a dead man walking, but he may finish the nomination race as the last man standing. Along the way he has collected an impressive roster of political endorsements, from Rudy Giuliani, his defeated former rival, to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the equally independent-minded governor of California. “The Terminator and I have similar attributes,” McCain joked in Chicago as he flexed a puny bicep.

He now appears well-placed to attract middle-of-the-road voters who may not welcome a return of the Clintons or the promotion of an inexperienced black senator.

In the Chicago crowd last week was Tricia Handler, a 19-year-old student who said she had considered Obama but had come to see McCain because her Republican father admired him.

“He’s not at all scary, and I can see myself voting for him,” said Handler, who added that personal impression was more important to her than party affiliation.

Yet however valuable moderate voters may be to McCain’s chances in November, he cannot afford to ignore the revolt stirring in Republican ranks.

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