Tom Curry  /  MSNBC.com
Posters, like this one, and lapel buttons supporting President Bush are being distributed around the Southern Republican Leadership Conference today in Memphis.
By Chris Matthews Host of 'Hardball'
msnbc.com
updated 3/11/2006 1:49:01 PM ET 2006-03-11T18:49:01

It's early on at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference down here, but already we've learned some big news.

Sources tell me that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., plans to shock his supporters tonight by asking them to NOT vote for him in the presidential straw poll that will be conducted by The Hotline on Saturday.

Instead, McCain will urge his followers to write in President Bush's name.

McCain will tell his supporters that this is not about 2008, but rather about 2006 and supporting the president.

According to McCain's supporters, he'll say: "I think we have bigger things to worry about. So if any friends here are thinking about voting for me, please don't. Just write in President Bush's name."

The straw poll asks 1,800 delegates from 37 states attending this conference who they support as the potential Republican nominee for president in 2008. The three candidates who garner the most votes will be revealed here on Saturday night.

Reacting to McCain's plans, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman tells NBC, "I'm in favor of anything that focuses people on 2006."

"The first primary of 2008 is what we do in 2006," Mehlman said.

McCain is one of a handful of presidential prospects addressing this conference in Memphis.

All week, we've been hearing about behind-the-scenes maneuvers and thinking on the straw poll. Some speculation has focused on Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who is expected by some to do well because we're in his home state.

Alex Vogel, an adviser to Frist, said of the McCain move, "I think it seems kind of silly."

"It may have a hint of mischief making," said Vogel.

Frist spokeswoman Amy Call said, "I keep hearing (from rival camps) that the straw poll is not a big deal. If it's not really a big deal, then why are they trying so hard?"

A top aide to another possible presidential candidate addressing the conference said of McCain's tactic: "It's a sign of weakness, I think," because it suggests McCain's team knows he can't win.

Others think Sen. George Allen, R-Va., will poll well because of his southern roots and appeal with the insider crowd.

But today, McCain, who many see as the early GOP frontrunner, will steal the spotlight before the voting even gets going.

Hardball's Brooke Brower; NBC's Elizabeth Wilner; and MSNBC.com's Tom Curry contributed.

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