Video: McCain takes big step toward 2008

updated 12/19/2006 2:52:38 PM ET 2006-12-19T19:52:38

Once a loser here, Republican Sen. John McCain desperately wants to avoid the same fate in this Southern state's primary - a shellacking that marked the beginning of the end of his first presidential campaign.

The Arizona senator who ran six years ago against party favorite George W. Bush now is positioning himself as the establishment candidate and building a campaign he hopes will ensure victory in South Carolina, mindful that the state's GOP primary winners have always become the nominee.

"He obviously has learned from that experience," said the state's House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a Bush backer in 2000 who so far is unaligned for 2008. "He has been in South Carolina probably more than anybody else over the last year, and has been trying to line up folks who were the key Bush supporters."

Obstacles, however, stand in McCain's way, not the least of which are two potential rivals - Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has a significant presence in the state and also is aggressively courting high-profile Bush backers, and the popular former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

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'The griping of a handful'
More than a year before South Carolina votes in early February 2008, McCain also faces a lingering mistrust among some rank-and-file Republicans who voted for Bush in the bitter 2000 primary that raised questions about the senator's conservative credentials.

Video: McCain discusses a 2008 run

"We're programmed to hate McCain," explained Lisa Manini Sox, executive director of the state Senate Republican caucus. She couldn't pinpoint one reason for her opposition but cast doubt on whether she could be "deprogrammed." Added Katrina Shealy, the treasurer of the Lexington County GOP: "He's explosive. He's the Howard Dean of the Republican Party."

The senator's aides dismiss such comments as the griping of a handful. McCain's allies insist that many former Bush supporters are rallying behind him as they seek a candidate with a conservative record, a strong chance of winning the general election and solid national security credentials in the post-Sept. 11 world.

"He is the perfect man for his time," says Henry McMaster, South Carolina's attorney general and a McCain supporter. McMaster was neutral in 2000 when he was the state party chairman.

Back then, McCain - an underdog courting independents and Democrats as well as Republicans - won handily in New Hampshire before losing to Bush by 11 percentage points in South Carolina.

Stunned by the loss up north, Bush's campaign and the party establishment that supported him went after McCain, who was relatively unknown in the Southern state, raising questions about both the senator's positions and his character. McCain traded insults in what became a toxic battle, and his campaign never recovered.

The McCain 'firewall'
Since then, McCain has sought to strengthen his standing among Republicans in South Carolina, the state of his close friend, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. McCain's efforts intensified this year in preparation for a presidential run.

In Washington, he embraced what he dubbed "commonsense conservatism," as his aides in South Carolina hired field organizers, courted grass-roots activists, distributed money to local candidates and secured endorsements from elected officials who previously stood with candidate Bush.

Some Republican observers say McCain appears to be building a so-called firewall intended to stop an opponent's ascent and put the senator on solid ground should he stumble in the Iowa caucuses, which he skipped in 2000, or the New Hampshire primary, where he could face stiff challenges from neighboring Northeasterners, Giuliani and Romney.

McCain aides say they are putting down strong campaign organizations in every primary state, and are focusing their efforts in South Carolina on areas that proved deficient for McCain in his first White House run - the ultraconservative swath from Columbia to the northwest. His strongest support comes from the coastal region.

Conservatism counts in South Carolina
Among the McCain converts is state Sen. John Courson of Columbia, who backed Bush in 2000. As for McCain, Courson said: "He's a natural progression of where I come from politically. He is a Reaganite."

State Sen. Mike Fair, a Christian conservative from Greenville who previously supported Bush, said he's aligned with McCain this time because of the senator's opposition to abortion, support for "the traditional family" and staunch military credentials.

Plus, he said, "John McCain is the best chance we have to beat the Democrats."

Republican Gov. Mark Sanford sided with McCain in 2000 when he was a congressman. This time, Sanford is the state's chief elected official after a hard-fought, second-term win, and he hopes to further his own legislative priorities. So, for the time being, Sanford is staying neutral.

"I'm in a mode that says first things first, and the first responsibility I have - in the professional sense - is the job at hand," he said. "I may or may not get involved in the race. At this point, I need a breather."

Romney, for his part, has spent months building a grass-roots organization and is expected to announce soon the backing of several elected officials who were Bush allies in 2000, perhaps even Sen. Jim DeMint.

"I'm 250 percent for Romney," said state Rep. Nikki Randhawa Haley, calling the Massachusetts governor a proven leader who has consistently adhered to core conservative principles. "McCain doesn't seem to fit the mold for strong conservatives."

As McCain knows all too well from his defeat six years ago, conservatism counts in South Carolina, home to many members of the religious right.

Judicial and immigration concerns
In 2000, exit polls showed that 65 percent of self-identified conservatives sided with Bush while 29 percent went to McCain. Bush won 69 percent of the Republican vote to McCain's 26 percent. And, white religious-right voters made up 43 percent of Bush's vote, compared to 20 percent of McCain's.

This time, all three top-tier hopefuls - McCain, Giuliani and Romney - face challenges in winning over the critical constituency.

Although his voting record on social issues is largely in line with conservatives, McCain has caught flak for his involvement in averting a Senate showdown over the president's judicial nominees and his position that tough border security should be paired with an eventual path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.

Romney, for his part, is a Mormon and hails from Massachusetts, a liberal bastion, both potential turnoffs for Bible Belt conservatives. In recent weeks, he has found himself having to explain inconsistencies in his record on gay marriage and abortion.

Giuliani, who was New York's mayor when terrorists struck the city, ranks high in popularity polls and is heralded for his response to the attacks. Yet, the former mayor supports gun control, same-sex civil unions and abortion rights, stands that run counter to a majority of the GOP conservative base.

"I don't think religious conservatives feel comfortable about any of them at this point," said Wendell Estep, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Columbia, one of the larger churches in the state, with a congregation of 5,500. "It's really up for grabs."

That could create an opportunity for Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, three possible candidates who are favorite sons of the GOP base but long-shots.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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