Once they were "coyotes." Now, they're pals.
Some of the very same men who helped derail Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign in 2000 using techniques the Arizona Republican alleged were illegal -- and whom McCain likened to the prairie carnivores -- are now leading financial supporters of his "Straight Talk America" political action committee and possible backers of his anticipated 2008 presidential run.
The news -- from campaign contribution reports and an invitation to a McCain fundraiser obtained by ABC News -- comes a few weeks after the announcement that the self-styled maverick will deliver the commencement address at an evangelical college started by Rev. Jerry Falwell, whom McCain had once dubbed an "agent of intolerance."
The fence-mending can be construed in any number of ways -- maturation, selling out, or the pragmatic political maneuvers of a frontrunner. But however one views it, the moves stand as a stark contrast to McCain's exciting, occasionally reckless underdog campaign from six years ago.
In March 2000, in the thick of that highly-charged GOP presidential competition between McCain and then-Gov. George W. Bush, Texas businessmen Sam and Charles Wyly -- major contributors to Bush -- funded a $2.5 million advertising campaign by a group calling itself "Republicans for Clear Air" that ran an ad against McCain in California, New York and Ohio.
Initially the Wylys did not acknowledge they were responsible for the ads -- and once it came out that they were they and the Bush 2000 presidential campaign denied any coordination, which would have been a violation of Federal Election Commission laws. McCain's campaign filed a complaint with the FEC alleging the Wylys broke the law.
The candidate himself referred to the brothers as "Wyly coyotes" and asked a campaign audience in Boston, "Are we going to allow two cronies of George W. Bush to hijack this election? Tell them to keep their dirty money in the state of Texas, my friends. Don't spread it all over New England and America."
But now the candidate from Arizona, planning a potential run for president in 2008, seems to have a different relationship with the coyotes.
Sam Wyly and his wife Cheryl have given McCain's political action committee a total of $10,000, according to records on the PAC's Web site. Additionally, Sam, Cheryl, and Charles Wyly are all co-chairing a May 15 fundraiser for McCain's PAC, to be hosted in Dallas, and featuring Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman.
"This all seems to me to be a reflection of the fear that lots of old-line Republicans have of what lies ahead in 2008," said Norm Ornstein, congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, "and the ability of McCain to seduce them in a sense into a belief that he's the only guy that can win."
McCain, who spent Sunday in Phoenix with his wife Cindy, was not available for comment. But John Weaver, a senior consultant for McCain and his PAC, said in response that he was "pleased so many people are committed to assisting the senator in his effort to elect Republicans around the country and responding to his reform agenda."
Also co-chairing the event are Rob Allyn, a Texas PR man who was paid $46,000 to produce the Wylys' "Republicans for Clean Air" ads, and businessmen Albert Huddleston and Harold Simmons, who gave $100,000 and $3 million respectively to the controversial independent group, "Swift Vets & POWs for Truth." McCain called "dishonest and dishonorable" the "Swift Vets" group's 2004 campaign ads that helped sink the presidential chances of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
Political observers say that McCain is walking a delicate line.
"He's trying to somehow preserve that enormous strength that made him rock star and folk hero -- over and above his previous military service -- that he's a straight talker and straight shooter with principles and will take on the nefarious forces whoever they are," Ornstein says. "On the other hand, he understands that in order to win the presidency, the first thing you've got to do is win the nomination. And in order to win the nomination, you've got to be undisputed leader of the party not just a leader of a movement."
"Our party tends to nominate 'The Next Guy,'" says McCain friend and ally Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. "As much resentment as there was against Ronald Reagan in 1976 after Ford lost, he was the next guy and got the nomination in 1980."
George H.W. Bush may have slapped Reagan in the primaries, but he got the nod eight years later; same with Bob Dole who waged a bitter campaign against Bush Sr. in 1988 and got the nod in 1996.
"McCain's the next guy," Kirk says.
Like the Wylys and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, others co-chairing the May 15 event come from the Texas Republican power structure that helped propel President Bush into the White House. They include former Texas Republican Gov. Bill Clements, an early Bush supporter whose 1986 gubernatorial campaign put Bush political guru Karl Rove on the map; George Bayoud, Clements' campaign manager who worked closely with Rove and was Clements' gubernatorial chief of staff; Jeanne Phillips, a longtime Bush fundraiser who helped run the Bush high-donor fundraising operation and helped run the inauguration festivities in 2001, 2005, and for Bush's father in 1989; and businessman and so-called "corporate raider" Tom Hicks, who helped make President Bush a millionaire 15 times over when he bought the Texas Rangers from a business group Bush helmed in 1999.
Campaign records indicate that many members of the Republican establishment seem to be lining up for a seat on the Straight Talk Express. Former George H.W. Bush national security adviser Brent Scowcroft has donated $5,000 to McCain's PAC; former RNC finance chair and Bush "Ranger" Lewis Eisenberg has donated $5,000; former Michigan Finance Chair of Bush for President 2000, Ron Weiser, appointed by President Bush as ambassador to the Slovak Republic, donated $10,000 along with his wife.
Bush media guru Mark McKinnon has said he'll eagerly work for McCain if neither Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice nor Florida Gov. Jeb Bush chose to run. Officially on board Straight Talk America as senior advisers are Terry Nelson, the Bush-Cheney 2004 political director, and former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party Chuck Larson.
Even while he reconciles with former enemies -- McCain cemented himself to President Bush on the campaign trail to 2004, and was one of the president's few allies in the Dubai Ports World controversy -- the senior senator from Arizona and former Vietnam War prisoner of war continues to chart his own way. The immigration reform legislation he co-authored with liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., is infuriating some elements of the conservative base for allowing illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
At a recent swing through Iowa, McCain disappointed some GOP activists by continuing to say he would vote against a federal marriage amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
"I intend to vote against it," he said. "I believe each state should decide."
He also reaffirmed his opposition to ethanol subsidies, an unpopular stance in the agricultural Midwestern state that holds the first presidential caucus in the nation.
McCain has been criticized by many liberals and pundits in recent weeks for agreeing to speak on May 13 at Liberty University, the school founded by Christian conservative Rev. Jerry Falwell, who McCain in 2000 labeled "an agent of intolerance." McCain told NBC's Tim Russert earlier this month that he no longer held that opinion.
"The, quote, 'Christian Right' has a major role to play in the Republican Party," McCain said. "One reason is because they're so active, and their followers are."
Falwell has told his hometown newspaper, the Lynchburg, Va., News & Advance, that three months ago Falwell met with McCain in his office and they "dealt with every difference we have. There are no deal breakers now. But I told him, 'You have a lot of fence mending to do.' "
"This is going to get tougher over the next few months," Ornstein said. "The press corps and Democrats and opinion leaders and the chattering class are going to get disillusioned and quickly turn on McCain with a vengeance if he's not careful."
On April 5, McCain told Jon Stewart's of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" that he was speaking at Liberty U. "to try to give these young people the same message I give to colleges and universities across the country."
After several rounds of back-and-forth, during which Stewart expressed comedic anguish, the comedian finally asked, "Are you freaking out on us? Are you going into crazy-base world?"
Joked McCain, "I'm afraid so."
The invitation for the event says McCain's PAC was re-launched "to help candidates in the 2006 elections who will support the reforms he has worked so hard to achieve and who are prepared to help strengthen our nation and unite our people. He plans to travel the country actively campaigning for candidates that share the same vision for America."