The McCain Factor: Why Isn't He the Front-Runner?

On paper, he's the ideal Republican candidate to hold onto the White House in 2008.

John McCain is a war hero who's not afraid to speak his mind, a respected senator whose conservative credentials on the Iraq War and abortion and whose maverick views about climate control and campaign finance should be able to win over evangelicals, moderate Republicans and independent voters.

Especially when you consider that the Arizona senator's leading competitors include a Mormon who's been accused of flip-flopping on important issues and a pro-choice, gay-rights supporter from New York City.

But McCain isn't the clear front-runner in this race, despite his attempt to play the middle.

He's reached out to moderate voters with his numerous media appearances. Last night he went on CBS's "Late Night With David Letterman" to announce his intention to run for president, and last week he flew around California with Arnold Schwarzenegger to call for federal action to stop global warming. At the same time, he's courted conservatives, recently meeting with religious broadcasters in Florida and mending fences with evangelical leaders.

His attempt to play the middle has won him the financial backing of major fundraisers, but it's also cost him support on the left and the right, at least at this early stage in the race.

In recent months, his support has been slipping -- especially among evangelical voters. According to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, the senator drew less than half the support of Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani led among Republicans with 44 percent, while McCain drew only 21 percent.

And most surprising of all was that white evangelical Protestants preferred Giuliani, despite the fact that when it comes to issues important to that powerful voting bloc, the former mayor's positions clash with theirs.

A spokesman for McCain's campaign say that it's early in the primary season and that they're pleased with the support they're getting at this stage in the game.

"Clearly, Senator McCain's duties in the Senate have taken up a large amount of his time, That being said, we're very pleased with the amount of endorsements and support we've received across the country," says Matt David. "Most polls show us up or within the margin of error."

Fortunes will turn fast in the coming months, but the candidate is facing some serious challenges in what will prove to be a tough campaign.

The first one will come in the courting of conservatives, that wide array of Republicans who range from tax cutters to evangelical Protestants.

Since the Republican primary in 2000, when George Bush outflanked McCain at winning over conservatives, the senator has gone out of his way to gain their favor. Although he derided evangelical leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "agents of intolerance" during that primary, McCain now courts their support. He delivered the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University last May.

McCain also started moving further to the right in recent months, announcing his opposition to gay marriage and declaring that he desired overturning the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973.

And McCain has distinguished himself as President Bush's biggest supporter on the Iraq War, so much so that the recent addition of 21,500 troops has been called the "McCain surge." (Although he's carefully distanced himself from the administration's war policy in recent weeks, saying "Americans are very frustrated, and they have every right to be. We've wasted a lot of our most precious treasure, which is American lives" during his Letterman appearance.)

But so far that strategy hasn't proven such a success and in some cases has served to alienate both conservatives and moderate voters.

Today's the start of the three-day Conservative Public Action Conference, the largest conclave in the country for conservatives. Romney and Giuliani will be there working the hallways and making speeches on Friday.

Who's the only major candidate not coming? McCain -- and his absence annoys some conference organizers.

"He's the only one who's not here," said CPAC director Lisa DePasquale, who stresses that McCain's absence may make conservatives question his commitment to the issues they care about.

"Conservatives may be questioning whether it's all talk because his actions indicate otherwise. Giuliani, he's on the opposite side when it comes to the social issues, but he's putting himself out here in front of conservatives. That's a lot more encouraging than someone who received an invitation back in June 2006."

Fiscal conservative guru Grover Norquist thinks that McCain's absence bodes poorly for his chances at gaining their support.

"So he thought it was wise to avoid the largest conservative meeting in the country?" asks Norquist. "I thought he was trying to reach out to the Reagan center of the party. It's surprising that he's not attending in keeping with his strategy -- 'I may have wandered away but I'm back.'" Norquist predicts that plenty of attendees, from gun supporters to tax-cut advocates, will be grumbling about McCain in the hallways at the conference.

McCain's campaign spokesman says that he will be busy campaigning in Utah and Arizona in the coming days. "Being a conservative is what you believe and not what meetings you attend," says David. "Senator McCain's has a 20-year record of common-sense conservatism in the Senate. Among the leading candidates, he's the only Republican who has a consistent record on these conservative issues."

In recent months, the Senator has picked up some crucial conservative support through his outreach, such as that meeting with religious broadcasters, after which the Rev. Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition said that he'd done a lot to repair damage.

But some prominent leaders still don't trust him, such as Focus on the Family's the Rev. James Dobson, who said that he wouldn't vote for McCain "under any circumstances."

Up in New Hampshire, the scene of McCain's greatest triumph, where he trounced George Bush in the 2000 primary, the candidate's sequel is getting mixed results.

"I like John McCain," said Sharon Pearson, a 56-year-old retired military employee living in Penacook, N.H. Pearson voted for him in 2000 and is planning to support him again in 2008. "I think he's a very strong personality and he understands the system. He's up front in his beliefs, people up here respect that and he'll do well around here again."

Howard Opinsky, who was McCain's campaign spokesman in 2000 and now works at Weber Shandwick, a public relations firm, thinks that he will repeat his success in New Hampshire and reverse his fate in South Carolina, where he lost to Bush in 2000.

"After the loss in the 2006 elections, many Republicans are looking for someone willing to stand up for conservative principles which weren't perhaps adhered to in the last few years," he said. "His brand of politics has become the gold standard -- authentic, willing to risk personal political success for what's right -- you see that today with his approach to Iraq and the war on terror."

Others in New Hampshire aren't so sure. Mark Fiedler, a retired schoolteacher from North Swanzey, strongly supported McCain in 2000. "That was a big fat mistake," said Fiedler. "I won't vote for him again, no way in God's green earth. He's what we call up here a RINO -- a Republican in name only -- when I took a closer look at him, I changed my mind."

Dean Speliotes, the director of the New Hampshire Institute on Politics, thinks that McCain will be hard-pressed to reprise his success at winning over New Hampshire's notoriously independent voters. "I don't think he's the same candidate. Back in 2000, he was a fairly libertarian candidate and that appealed to a big bunch of swing voters up here," he said. "But the kind of social conservative moves that he's taking to build up strength in the South, that doesn't resonate up here. He's on the wrong side of issues that we talk about up here."

But McCain does appear to be in a good position to reverse his fate in South Carolina, where recent polls show him leading the other candidates. He's won the support of much of the state's Republican leadership, from Sen. Lindsey Graham to major fundraisers.

"The realization set in that John McCain is seen by Republicans as the most consistently conservative who can win in November," said Richard Quinn, who is running the senator's campaign in the state. "It's been speculated that his strong support for the president's new strategy has hurt him in other states but I can tell you that it's helped him here. Reagan lost in '76 and he came back four years later. Psychologically, there's some of that going on here."

In any case, Quinn doesn't worry too much about Giuliani's ascendance in recent polls. "I never like the idea of being an early front-runner because that's the guy that everybody shoots at."

And at this early stage, many of the Giuliani's supporters aren't fully aware of his positions or his tangled romantic life, which involves three marriages. According to recent polls, a large number of respondents didn't know about his pro-choice stance or his support for gay rights.

"Giuliani's positions on social issues are not known by the activists yet," said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "Campaigns gradually roll out the truth about everybody."

But Sabato also thinks that McCain's maverick reputation and his age (if elected in 2008, he would be 72, the oldest president in American history) could hurt him among Republicans. "Republicans don't like mavericks -- the reason is that they like to know where their president will be on any given day. With McCain, he could wake up and change everything," said Sabato.

"The age, the temper, he seems to be off the reservation a lot -- how would he govern? -- are all negatives … but they don't have an alternative. It's a weak field if you're a conservative Republican."