Video: McCain enters the presidential fray

updated 3/1/2007 7:50:06 PM ET 2007-03-02T00:50:06

As a Republican heavyweight not an underdog, John McCain embarks on his second presidential run facing numerous challenges in courting a GOP establishment he once spurned at nearly every turn.

In a move meant to spark his campaign, the Arizona senator chose a late-night talk show to make clear Wednesday what long had been anticipated — "I am announcing that I will be a candidate for president of the United States."

But a day after he disclosed his plans on CBS' "Late Night With David Letterman" to formally enter the race in April, McCain found himself on the defensive for saying during the appearance that U.S. lives had been "wasted" in Iraq.

"I should have used the word sacrificed as I have in the past," the former Vietnam prisoner of war said amid some Democratic complaints.

The episode underscored the intense scrutiny in store for McCain — the freewheeling candidate of 2000 — as he seeks the presidency as one of the GOP's strongest contenders and as the country wages an unpopular war to which McCain is perhaps forever linked.

The Iraq factor
Projecting an air of invincibility, McCain spent more than a year laying the foundation for another White House bid and ended 2006 as the front-runner for the GOP nomination, albeit a weak one, given the depth of his national campaign organization and his roster of fundraisers — many veterans of President Bush's campaign — and early endorsements.

But over the past few months, McCain has put most of his efforts into Iraq and shepherding Bush's unpopular troop increase through Congress. Meanwhile, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani made it clear he was running and enthusiasm for his candidacy grew while ex-Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts formally entered the race and set the pace in fundraising.

Recently, Giuliani's edge in national popularity polls has widened considerably over McCain, even among white evangelicals who make up a core of the GOP base. All that has caused some Republicans in Washington to question — mostly in private conversations — whether McCain's campaign needed a jump start.

"McCain is on target, on schedule, but maybe is suffering a bit from Giuliani being the flavor of the month," said Ken Duberstein, a GOP consultant in Washington. Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster in Alexandria, Va., was more blunt: "He doesn't seem to have made any progress lately, let's put it that way."

Countering that perception, McCain told The Associated Press earlier this week: "We've had very good movement ... It's not only not stalled, it's that we've seen significant progress."

Battling a maverick reputation
Regardless, 10 months before the first primary votes, McCain's work to woo the GOP base — and become the party's standard-bearer — is just beginning, and he must overcome a spate of hurdles to get the Republican nomination.

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The feisty McCain long has been known in Congress as an independent Republican unafraid to buck the party or speak his mind — and he reveled in his rebel reputation in his bitter and ultimately unsuccessful 2000 race against George W. Bush.

Then, much of the GOP establishment lined up behind Bush early on so McCain had no choice but to run as an anti-establishment candidate — and he did so with fervor, said Kenneth Sherrill, a political science professor at Hunter College in New York.

"This time, McCain has worked very hard to identify himself as the heir apparent and to be as closely aligned as possible to the forces that vanquished him in 2000, but he does face a couple of problems," Sherrill said.

McCain must convince Republican primary voters that they can trust him to be a loyal party champion who will adhere to GOP's core principles — and not waver.

Some conservatives, who make up a critical part of the Republican base, are skeptical of his veracity given that he once derided their leaders as "agents of intolerance" but now has sought to repair relations with them.

He also will have to answer for conflicts on certain issues that cause conservatives to pause:

  • On taxes, McCain voted against Bush's tax cut in 2001, but now says he favors extending the cuts. He says doing otherwise would amount to a tax increase.
  • On abortion, McCain said once in 1999 that he didn't think Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision legalizing abortion, should be overturned but now he advocates its repeal.

McCain also may find himself having to explain other actions that further rankled the base — spearheading the law that reformed the campaign finance system, backing Bush's call for an eventual path to citizenship for some of the millions of illegal immigrants in the U.S., and his collegial working relationship with liberal lion Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

At the same time, McCain could end up fighting the perception that he's the past. Giuliani and Romney are fresh faces to GOP primary voters, who largely know McCain from his previous run — and have deep-seated feelings for him, for better or worse.

McCain's age and his health also might become an issue. Should he win this nomination and then the presidency, McCain, 70, would be the oldest president ever sworn into office for a first term. He also is a cancer survivor.

He bristles at the notion that voters may see him as unfit to serve, telling AP: "I work seven days a week, 16 plus hours a day. I'm fine. I'm healthy."

Oddly, Iraq — the four-year-old war a majority of Americans oppose — could end up being McCain's ticket to winning the Republican nod.

Although he has criticized how Bush handled it, McCain's unflinching support for the war and Bush's troop increase could endear him to hard-core Republican voters — and, perhaps, prove they can count on him.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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