Larry Downing  /  Reuters
McCain joins Bush at Fort Lewis in Washington state in June.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 8/30/2004 11:04:26 AM ET 2004-08-30T15:04:26

Can the road that led from a prisoner-of-war camp in North Vietnam to a seat in the United States Senate to a memorably bitter battle with George Bush for the 2000 Republican nomination, end four years from now with Sen. John McCain stepping to the podium in triumph to become the GOP presidential nominee?

That seems an improbable, perhaps outlandish outcome, given McCain’s history with social conservatives in the GOP.

Once you’ve called Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell “corrupting influences” and “the forces of evil,” as McCain did four years ago, it’s pretty hard to charm your way back into the good graces of social conservatives.

But as McCain addresses the Republican delegates Monday night, he will summon up memories of a different history, his past as a Ronald Reagan loyalist, a Cold War Republican who has become his party’s most passionate voice on the need to defeat America’s new enemies, the al-Qaida fanatics.

Four years from now, the McCain-Robertson-Falwell feud will be a distant memory, but there is every indication America will still be at war.

Surveying the 2008 field
In a field of Republican presidential hopefuls that may include New York Gov. George Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, McCain’s national security credentials seem quite strong.

This year, however, McCain can’t have a place on his party’s ticket and he refused to accept one on the opposition party’s ticket.

Video: McCain interview Despite his odd-man-out status, McCain has become a powerful talisman that both George Bush and John Kerry seem to want to hold on to.

He denounced an anti-Kerry television ad aired by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and joined Bush in a court action to try to compel the Federal Election Commission to crack down on outside "527" groups that are spending hundreds of millions in the battle for the White House.

One thing Bush and Kerry might envy is that in Washington reporters and pundits seem to love McCain, as they have since he won the New Hampshire primary four years ago and his “Straight Talk Express” cruised its way into political mythology.

McCain is less predictable than Bush or Kerry; his quicksilver, often mischievous personality makes him fun to loiter near, as he holds court in the Senate lobby, dishing out quotes to reporters.

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Democrats courting McCain
This spring, the Democrats’ courting of McCain became faintly cloying, almost ludicrous.

“I have any number of people that I would make secretary of defense, beginning with our good friend John McCain,” Kerry said in May. And Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., called for McCain to be Kerry’s running mate.

This infatuation isn’t new: Back in the spring of 2002, the Democratic magazine The New Republic called McCain “The Democrats’ Best Hope” (to beat Bush) and spent several pages ardently making the case for the Democratic nomination to be handed to him.

But McCain’s voting record is more conservative than some of his Democratic and news media admirers like to admit, with some votes that would make them squirm, if ever he were given a place on a Democratic ticket.

He has voted:

  • For conservative Supreme Court nominees Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork.
  • Against the Brady bill, which required a waiting period before the purchase of a handgun.
  • Against a bill to ban job discrimination against gays.
  • For the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to refuse to recognize marriages performed in other states.
  • Against criminal penalties for those who use force or physical obstruction to block access to abortion clinics.
  • For a ban on the procedure known as partial-birth abortion.
  • For finding Bill Clinton guilty at the 1999 Senate trial of impeachment charges.

On each of these, McCain voted in opposition to Kerry.

“I’m a loyal Republican,” McCain said during a debate with Bush four years ago. "The Republican Party is my home.”

He has been required to share his home with the head of the household, a man for whom he’s shown minimal regard in the past.

It is hard to imagine that either McCain or Bush can forget the insults they fired at each other during the South Carolina primary that became a grudge-fest in February of 2000.

“I believe it is not trustworthy when someone shakes your hand and says they’re not going to run a negative ad, and then runs a negative ad,” McCain told reporters.

Comparing Bush to Clinton
“We’ve already got somebody in the Oval Office who is not trustworthy,” he cracked, referring to Clinton.

In a TV ad, McCain lashed out at Bush, saying one of Bush’s ads “twists the truth like Clinton.” (And some Democrats seriously thought Bill and Hillary Clinton would accept McCain as the Democratic vice presidential candidate this year?)

Bush for his part accused McCain of “Washington double talk” by professing support for campaign finance reform while accepting contributions from lobbyists and special interests.

Bush told reporters in the wake of McCain’s salvos, “It’s sad, isn’t it. The true nature of John McCain is evidently coming out.”

Nor can Bush or his subordinates fail to recall McCain’s role as unrelenting critic of the manner in which they have conducted the Iraq war.

Watching McCain interrogate Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz during his appearances before the Senate Armed Service Committee in the past 12 months has been like viewing a highly refined ritual of torment.

When Wolfowitz last May requested more money for helicopter fuel and body armor for the troops, McCain icily told him, “I am intrigued that there is no mention in this set of priorities of increased personnel costs. We have 20,000 additional personnel there (in Iraq) now. I think we need more. I said we needed more nine months ago.”

The Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal in May provoked McCain to a mixture of fury and anxiety.

At a Senate hearing, McCain told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “I’m gravely concerned that many Americans will have the same impulse as I did when I saw those pictures and that is to turn away from (the Iraq war). We risk losing public support for this conflict. As Americans turned away from the Vietnam War, they may turn away from this one unless this issue is quickly resolved with full disclosure.”

McCain told reporters later, “It would be a terrible thing if this caused Americans … to lose support for what I believe is a very just cause and one that we must win. If we lose, the consequences would be catastrophic.”

The Iraq-Vietnam analogy is not one Kerry would make, except to worry, as he did last April, that Iraq might become a quagmire. And the “just cause” rhetoric is not language Kerry has used.

That difference in outlook, as much as anything, explains why McCain is backing Bush and taking to the campaign trial to urge voters to do likewise.

And as for all that rhetoric from his 2000 clash with Bush, McCain said last week, “the most important aspect of this whole thing for me is to not look back in anger."

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