The last time many Americans thought about Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in presidential terms was in 2000 when the senator slugged it out with then-Gov. George W. Bush for the GOP's presidential nomination. Afer upsetting Bush by 19 points in New Hampshire's open primary on the strength of his performance with independents, Bush battled back by rallying the GOP's conservative base in South Carolina.
As McCain prepares to head to New Hampshire (home of the Republican Party's first primary) on April 7 and to Iowa (home of the GOP's first caucus) on April 13, the conventional wisdom is that he would be unstoppable in a general election but doomed in the GOP primaries.
But with many in the Republican Party irked by the growth of federal spending and concerned about a public growing weary of war, some conservative insiders are beginning to warm to "Mr. Outsider." McCain says he will not make a final decision about 2008 until after the midterm elections. But he is already taking steps to win over the party's conservatives and he appears to have done so, at least so far, without alienating the self-described "radical centrists" who have always been his core supporters.
In recent months, McCain has taken several steps to court his party's base: he has endorsed teaching intelligent design alongside evolution; he has backed a ban on gay marriage in his home state of Arizona; he has met with the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
He has also described former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., as "the finest leader we've had" and questioned the commitment of media darling Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., to ethics reform. And to top it off, he recently said he wouldn't be bothered if Roe v. Wade were overturned since he's never supported it.
But far more important to McCain's conservative resurgence has been his opposition to what he calls wasteful spending and his commitment to persevering in Iraq.
During Michigan's 2000 presidential primary, the GOP activist Chuck Yob was not in McCain's corner. Yob was a Bush man; his second choice was Steve Forbes, the magazine publisher and flat-tax advocate. But in the six years since McCain's last presidential run, Yob has fallen under McCain's spell.
"He's probably my favorite," said Yob who has met with a bevy of potential Republican presidential hopefuls.
Yob says Michigan Republicans are more concerned today about out-of-control spending than they are about taxes. He says he has come to admire McCain for his tough stance on "pork-barrel spending." Yob is not alone.
Rich Lowry, the editor of the conservative National Review, applauded McCain last year for standing with "conservative rebels" in calling for offsets to pay for Katrina spending. And when McCain spoke to the Spartanburg GOP dinner in South Carolina last month, he appealed to conservatives by pointing to his vote against the Medicare prescription drug benefit and by saying that any lobbying reform effort should include new protections against members of Congress surreptitiously inserting pet projects into spending bills.
Rogue State Rollback
It may come as a surprise to those who are used to seeing the media highlight McCain's disagreements with Bush on troop levels and the treatment of prisoners but the other key to McCain's conservative resurgence is foreign policy.
In November, McCain told the American Enterprise Institute that Sen. John Kerry's, D-Mass., call for the withdrawal of 20,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year was a "major step on the road to disaster," prompting David White to write in the think tank's online magazine that McCain is "poised to rise" as "the most outspoken -- and eloquent -- defender of Iraq."
"And unlike Bush," White added, "McCain is ready for the debate."
When Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., the ranking Democrat on the defense appropriations subcommittee, said U.S. troops have accomplished all that they can in Iraq and that it is time to redeploy them to the periphery since their continued presence was only serving, in his view, to inflame the insurgency, McCain told conservative columnist Byron York that Murtha is "a lovable guy," but "he's never been a big thinker; he's an appropriator."
None of McCain's tough talk on Iraq should come as a surprise. He has long believed in using the American military to export democracy.
Back when then-Gov. Bush was wary of nation building and talking about a foreign policy based on humility and restraint, McCain was advocating a policy of "rogue-state rollback," which he described in a 1999 speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies as a "21st century interpretation of the Reagan doctrine."
Despite his unyielding defense of the Iraq war, McCain has managed to maintain his credibility among war critics.
"I feel like I'm running focus groups for John McCain," said Eugene Jarecki as he travels the country promoting "Why We Fight," his award-winning documentary film which features an interview with McCain and offers a critique of the "unwarranted influence" of the military-industrial complex. "I get asked all the time if I think McCain is the next Dwight Eisenhower."
Jarecki knows that he and McCain are at odds over the wisdom and justness of going to war with Iraq. And yet, Jarecki continues to root for him, believing that the former prisoner of war shares Eisenhower's understanding that if the "dogs of corporatism" are allowed to run wild, the United States will lose the "very important willingness of the American people to die for their country."