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Jewish World Review June 12, 2001 / 22 Sivan 5761

Morton Kondracke

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History suggests that McCain should stick with the GOPers -- SEN. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) staff admits there are moments when he and they think about his bolting the Republican Party and going Independent, but they don't last very long.

One top aide said, "Sometimes he comes into the office and says that [Sens.] Teddy Kennedy [D-Mass.] or John Edwards [D-N.C.] has just talked to him about switching. If we're feeling especially harassed [by the GOP leadership], we say, 'Maybe we should.' But it's momentary. It has not once been serious."

If McCain does have a serious talk with his advisers, he'll probably conclude that he should stay a Republican until 2003 or early 2004 and bolt only if President Bush is a failed incumbent and Democrats are about to nominate a weak, left-wing candidate, thereby creating a huge opening in the middle of the political spectrum.

Leaving the GOP sooner would cost McCain a lot. Unless Senate Democratic leaders could persuade Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) to give McCain the chairmanship of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee - which is highly unlikely - a McCain switch would cost him staff and his powerful post as ranking member on that committee.

The more plausible scenario - now an item of rampant speculation - is that McCain would run for president as a third-party "Bull Moose" candidate in 2004. But even that is unlikely.

The best argument against it is that McCain's hero, Theodore Roosevelt, received only 27.4 percent of the vote when he ran in 1912, finishing second.

Moreover, Roosevelt enjoyed advantages McCain wouldn't. A former president, TR won eight primaries against incumbent GOP President William Howard Taft and was the overwhelming favorite of rank-and-file Republicans before he bolted after party bosses denied him the nomination.

In 2004, unless his presidency completely collapses, Bush will remain the GOP favorite. McCain could draw from a larger pool of self-identified independents (up to 35 percent of the electorate). Still, in 1992, Ross Perot was able to collect only 20 percent of the vote, finishing third.

Perot helped defeat Bush's father and elect Bill Clinton, much as Roosevelt elected Woodrow Wilson. McCain, a proud man, presumably isn't interested in being a spoiler rather than a winner.

Moreover, some Republican colleagues contend that his issue stances these days are becoming sufficiently liberal that if he did run, he might actually help Bush by drawing votes from his Democratic adversary.

Speculation about McCain bolting the GOP has become Washington's second-favorite discussion topic - the Senate changeover being the first - since The Washington Post reported last Saturday that McCain was "planning" a third-party run.

McCain staffers and participants all assert that the Post overwrote and overplayed an account of a lunch conversation last week among three McCain supporters and one staffer.

"It was just Bull Moose talk over babaghanoush," said the Hudson Foundation's Marshall Whitman, one of the diners at Bacchus, a Middle Eastern restaurant.

Whitman and McCain staffers deny that McCain knew of or authorized any talk of a third-party candidacy. The Senator says he has "no intention" of doing so.

Yet he keeps stirring the pot, having met last weekend with new Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.). He voted against the final version of Bush's tax cut and is opposing the GOPleadership and aligning mainly with Democrats on patients' rights legislation, gun control and a bill to shorten patent protection for pharmaceuticals.

McCain aides say they don't know what the Senator's stance will be on Bush's energy policy, especially price caps on California power, but they note that he has held three hearings this year on global warming.

Such positions lead McCain's regular GOP critics to accuse him of moving "left."

One Republican pollster added that, if McCain did run as an Independent in 2004, his strength would lie mainly among wealthy suburbanites and academics, not the broad middle class needed to win the election.

"He'd be a muscular John Anderson," the pollster said, referring to the one-time Republican conservative turned liberal Independent who received just 7 percent in 1980, when Ronald Reagan trounced Jimmy Carter.

Whitman, without arguing that McCain should or will run for president, contends that the Arizona maverick is no liberal or Northeast Republican moderate la Sens. Jeffords, Lincoln Chaffee (R.I.) or Olympia Snowe (Maine).

He points out that McCain, unlike GOP moderates or Democrats, is to the right of Bush on defense spending, favors missile defense, and is pro-life and an anti-spending hawk.

Also, unlike Perot, Whitman points out, McCain is a free-trade internationalist and favors expanded immigration.

So an opening might exist - an extremely narrow one. McCain should, and presumably will, remain a rebellious Republican and wait to see what develops.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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