John McCain tells ABC News that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich "may be right" for thinking that the Arizona senator's immigration stance is a bigger hurdle to the GOP's 2008 presidential nomination than former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's support for abortion rights.
"Sen. McCain carries both the burden of McCain-Feingold and now the burden of the McCain-Kennedy bill," said Gingrich in a question and answer session following a Friday speech to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. "And I think, in a sense . . . if you were handicapping, he has the greatest challenge in a Republican primary in explaining those positions."
In an exclusive interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos airing this Sunday on "This Week," McCain does not entirely refute Gingrich's assessment.
"He may be right, for all I know," McCain said of Gingrich's immigration claim, "but I went [to the Senate] to do the hard things. I went there to do something. The easiest thing for me to do is go there and say 'no' to things."
While McCain conceded that Gingrich may be right with respect to the political risk posed by his immigration stance, McCain rejected Gingrich's claim that the landmark campaign-finance legislation which bears his name poses a similar threat to McCain's White House ambitions.
"Out here in Iowa," McCain told ABC News, "you go with me to all these town hall meetings, you'll never hear anybody ask about that. That's an inside-the-beltway thing, people who lost money who used to make a lot of money off of this soft money that was washing around."
Channeling his political idol, former President Teddy Roosevelt, McCain continued, "I'm in the arena. I'm working hard. I'm proud of my record. And from time to time, it may not be agreeable, but it's what the people of Arizona sent me there to do and I'm proud and happy to do it."
McCain's Burden with GOP Base Bigger than Giuliani's, Romney's
Even though Gingrich and Giuliani have different positions on abortion rights, Gingrich believes that the man who led New York through the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has a "very strong case to make" on national security and that GOP primary voters will place more importance on those security credentials than on his liberal social views.
"Right to life really matters," said Gingrich. "There are a number of places, for example, where I really disagree with Mayor Giuliani. But in a world where a nuclear weapon could eliminate an American city in seconds, he has a very strong case to make."
The man who in 1994 led the GOP to its first House majority in 40 years also had words of praise for two other Republican presidential candidates.
Gingrich dismissed the suggestion that Mitt Romney's Mormon faith might represent an obstacle to the GOP nomination, and he praised the Republican presidential candidate as a "very serious person who is working very hard to develop a presidential campaign," telling ABC News following his speech to the conservative think tank that Romney was "very courageous" to include a requirement that individuals purchase health insurance while he was governor of Massachusetts.
Praise for Thompson
Gingrich also had words of praise for Fred Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee.
Gingrich called Thompson "very formidable" and predicted that the actor-politician, who is expected to formally enter the presidential race later this summer, would join Giuliani and Romney as one of the "final three" Republican presidential candidates with a serious chance of being nominated. When Thompson was still in the Senate, he backed McCain's overhaul of the nation's campaign-finance laws.
Gingrich Sketches Vision, Ponders His Own '08 Bid
As for whether he would personally enter the 2008 race, Gingrich reiterated his plans to sit down with his wife and family on Sept. 30 to evaluate whether to form a presidential exploratory committee.
Gingrich's exploratory committee decision will come after he hosts two days of participatory workshops on the Internet -- Sept. 27 and Sept. 29 -- which are intended to develop new ideas for overhauling American government. The first of those dates was chosen to coincide with the 13th anniversary of the Contract With America, the 1994 platform used by House Republicans, which catapulted Gingrich to the speakership.
Gingrich noted that if one of the current candidates picks up his ideas and campaigns on the "scale of change" that he thinks necessary, he will stay out of the race and focus instead on influencing the more than 500,000 elected officials in the United States.
The movement Gingrich hopes to lead focuses on replacing what he describes as the current system of "bureaucratism, legalism and political correctness" with a new system oriented around the values of "more choices, with higher quality, at lower cost and greater convenience."
Gingrich Goes French
Even though U.S. conservatives often malign the French, Gingrich said in his Friday speech that he would like to change U.S. tax law along the lines favored by France's new conservative president.
Nicolas Sarkozy has proposed making income earned beyond France's 35-hour work week tax-free. Under Gingrich's proposal, income earned beyond the 40-hour American work week up to $100,000 or $150,000 would be tax free.
To develop the idea, he has partnered with Ken Kies, the former staff director of the Joint Tax Committee, and he plans to roll out the proposal in detail after Sarkozy enacts the concept in France. Gingrich said that he is working to make his idea applicable to those who have more than one job and to those who work on a salaried, rather than hourly, basis.
"Can you imagine the screams from the left?" asked Gingrich. "Because they think it is their money. How can you take this money from government? But I think that's the fight we win."