Nancy Johnson, John McCain
Bob Child  /  AP
U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., and U.S. Sen John McCain, R-Ariz. leave VFW Post 149 in Danbury, Conn., after McCain and Johnson presented medals to two members of the post and McCain spoke in support of Johnson.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 9/19/2006 8:11:18 AM ET 2006-09-19T12:11:18

DANBURY, Conn. - How many thousands of votes is John McCain worth to Nancy Johnson here in Connecticut’s Fifth congressional district? Maybe enough votes to help win a close House race.

McCain came to Danbury, Conn., Monday to speak at a fund-raising lunch at the Amerigo Vespucci Lodge 160 of the Order of Sons of Italy and at Post 149 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

No matter how familiar McCain is, no matter how often one encounters him right off the Senate floor where he spends countless minutes fielding reporters’ questions, McCain on the campaign trail is like a consistent consumer product: never any lessening of quality, always effervescent and wise-cracking, wearing a look on his face somewhere between a grin and a grimace.

When we asked Johnson Monday the question of how many votes McCain’s presence was worth to her, McCain himself piped up, “I have 15 blood relatives here” in Danbury, a joke that got a laugh from the local press gaggle.

Lending a hand
McCain, the news media darling, the war hero, the mercurial quipster, George Bush’s rival from the 2000 campaign, Bush’s current adversary on the al Qaida detainee issue, and perhaps Bush’s successor in the White House – came to Danbury to bolster support for Johnson, his classmate from the House Republican class of 1982, who faces a serious challenge from Democratic state senator Chris Murphy.

McCain is preparing for the 2008 presidential contest by trekking across the country to help GOP congressional candidates.

In August and September, he has campaigned for two senators (Mike DeWine of Ohio and George Allen of Virginia) and for four GOP House candidates, from Rep. Heather Wilson in New Mexico to Johnson here in Connecticut. He’s also spoken at events for candidates for state offices in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, all key caucus and primary states on the ’08 calendar.

Johnson is one of several endangered Republican centrists this fall. She did vote in support of Bush’s positions 59 percent of the time in 2005, but on high-profile issues such as funding embryonic stem cell research she voted against Bush.

Her district is almost perfectly balanced: in 2004, Bush and Democrat John Kerry each got 49 percent of the vote. Kerry wound up the winner here by only 1,112 votes out of more than 300,000 votes cast, while Johnson was winning re-election with 60 percent.

McCain phenomenon
McCain’s appeal to independents and non-Bush Republicans can help Johnson in her hour of need.

Johnson has been hammering “liberal Chris Murphy” in her TV ads, accusing him of risking American lives by insisting on a court warrant before intercepting terrorist phone calls from the United States to Pakistan or other terrorist havens outside the United States.

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“Our security is my number one priority; there is nothing more important than the security of the American people,” Johnson told reporters in Danbury with McCain at her side.

When a reporter asked McCain whether some Republican candidates – the reporter didn’t mention Johnson specifically -- were using “scare tactics” to frighten Americans into not voting Democratic, McCain replied, “No, I’ve not seen that. We should not question anyone’s patriotism, but there are legitimate differences of view.”

McCain also said “we’re certainly making progress” on a compromise with Bush on a bill to authorize tribunals for al Qaida suspects at Guantanamo Naval Base and to prescribe rules for their interrogation.

McCain’s conflict with Bush on interrogation of Al Qaida detainees may earn him further enmity from the conservatives who’ve long been wary of him.

Both the Wall Street Journal and the Manchester Union Leader assailed his views on detainees in editorials Monday.

More than the war
McCain will be back in Connecticut next month to campaign for House GOP incumbents Rob Simmons and Chris Shays.

But McCain’s presence in Danbury was a reminder that the GOP Congress has so far failed to pass legislation to address a crisis for many cities: the cost of illegal immigrants.

Noting the urgency of the illegal immigration problem was a Republican in attendance at the McCain events Monday, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton.

His city has largest population of Brazilians of any place in the United States; many of them are illegal immigrants, Boughton said.

Danbury must bear the burden of enforcing housing codes in overcrowded immigrant houses: “you’ll have ten or 15 people living in a three-bedroom house,” the mayor said.

Boughton said “it has frustrated residents” that Congress has been unable to agree on a solution, either McCain’s proposal, passed by the Senate, which would create a guest worker program and permit illegal immigrants to eventually qualify for citizenship, or the House-passed enforcement-only bill.

“Nancy voted yes on the House bill so voters pretty much don’t see her as the issue,” Boughton said.

He added that he opposed McCain’s approach because it permitted illegal immigrants to pay a fine to acquire legal status.

“I don’t think we can reduce permanent residency and ultimately citizenship to paying a fine. It should be worth more than that,” the mayor said.

Meanwhile, Murphy defended himself against Johnson’s attack ad. He said, “She invented a position for me in that ad. Nowhere have I ever said that we should wait for a warrant to intercept terrorists’ communications…. We should obey the law and apply for a warrant within 72 hours of intercepting that communication.” In a doorbelling effort in the town of Bridgewater Sunday, Murphy honed in on what he thinks is the decisive issue to defeat Johnson: the complexity and cost of the Medicare Part D prescription drug program, which, as a member of the House and Ways Committee, she had a hand in designing.

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