EXCLUSIVE: McCain Begins Preliminary White House Run

His party may have taken "a thumpin'," in the words of President Bush, but ABC News has learned that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and his political team have decided it's full steam ahead for his 2008 presidential campaign though he has yet to make the final, official decision.

Sources close to McCain say on Wednesday in Phoenix, he and a half dozen of his top aides huddled and decided to proceed more formally with his quest for the White House.

McCain told ABC News that his team will continue to meet and "go through the process of decision making." But, he added, "I certainly haven't made any decision."

A presidential exploratory committee is expected to be set up this month -- perhaps as early as next week.

McCain's official, final decision will likely not come until after the Christmas holidays, after he's had a chance to talk it over with his wife, Cindy.

Among his seven children, Jimmy is at boot camp at Camp Pendleton; Jack is at the Naval Academy; and daughter Megan is in her senior year at Columbia University.

In the meantime, McCain's team is exploring office space in Virginia, hiring staff and building infrastructure in key early-primary states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Strategy Could Target Swing Voters, Bipartisan Issues

Despite Republican losses of the House and Senate, McCain sees encouraging signs for his personal quest.

Independent voters were the key swing voters in this election, going overwhelmingly for Democrats. And that could be a voting pool he would tap into.

"No question. I think voters said they want independence, they want bipartisanship, and they want a voice of moral authority on Iraq, and John McCain is all three," said former Bush adviser Mark McKinnon, who worked on the 2004 campaign.

"I've always been popular with independents," McCain said. "But I don't know [how] independents feel right now from what I see they are kind of unhappy."

Republicans will want to focus on winning them back, and according to polls, McCain is more popular with them than he is with conservative Republicans.

In exit polls, Republican voters expressed disappointment with their party on the issues of fiscal restraint and government ethics, issues McCain has tried to make his signature.

"A lot of people look at the Republican Congress and say the problem is they only took half measures of which McCain wanted to do in full measure," McKinnon said.

He said McCain has been a "leader for years" in those areas.

"All the relevant issues in the Congress now -- spending reform, ethics reform -- are issues that John McCain has been talking about for a long time," he said.

Why would McCain start his campaign so early?

For one, The race is wide open -- with no president or vice president running for the first time in 80 years.

Already Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa have announced their intentions.

The race also looks to be expensive. In 2004, President Bush spent more than $345 million on his campaign.

Though he's considered his party's front-runner, McCain faces some considerable hurdles.

Having turned 70 in August, he would be the oldest U.S. president to get elected. And he faces at least one strong challenger within the party, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and others in the seemingly ascendant Democratic Party, such as Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill.

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