John McCain: Political Tightrope Walker?

Candidate tries to appeal to independents, while keeping core Republicans.

May 19, 2008— -- Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is scheduled to appear on the daytime talk show "Ellen" on Thursday, an event of some political significance, given host Ellen DeGeneres's recent declaration that she plans to marry her companion, actress Portia de Rossi, now that the California Supreme Court has opened the door to same-sex marriage.

Like Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., McCain opposes the legalization of same-sex marriage.

But the fact that McCain is reaching out to DeGeneres' viewers -- an act that would have been close to unthinkable during the Republican primaries -- is indicative of how the conservative Republican is attempting to pivot towards the political center and reach out to independent voters and Democrats, while his would-be opponents continue to battle it out in the five remaining Democratic primaries.

In Chicago today, the Arizona Republican attacked Congress' bloated farm bill.

In a speech to the National Restaurant Association, McCain pointed out that food prices are at "historic highs" while farm income has climbed only 56 percent in two years.

"It would be hard to find any single bill that better sums up why so many Americans in both parties are so disappointed in the conduct of their government, and at times, disgusted by it," he said.

"Yet, even now, the Congress has voted to give billions of dollars in subsidies to some of the biggest and richest agribusiness corporations in America -- many of which are heavy political contributors to members in both parties," he said.

Such rhetoric may hurt Republicans running for re-election this November, but McCain is trying not to run as just any Republican but, rather, as his own distinct brand.

Touring New Orleans with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in late April, McCain attacked the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, vowing, "This was an unacceptable scenario, and one that will never happen again."

In another break with the Bush administration, he delivered a major speech on climate change last week, saying, "I will not shirk the mantle of leadership that the United States bears. I will not permit eight long years to pass without serious action on serious challenges."

Political analyst Matthew Dowd explained that McCain's strategy is not only expected, but necessary. "Every opportunity he has to take the president on and say, 'I'm not President Bush on this issue,' he has to do."

The 71-year-old senator also tried to address the questions about his age, with humor, on "Saturday Night Live."

"What should we be looking for in our next president? Certainly, someone who is very, very, very old," he quipped.

But McCain's brand as a reformer has been tarnished by the news that several lobbyists who have worked for the governments of Myanmar and Saudi Arabia were on his campaign. He has since instituted more stringent lobbying regulations. McCain's national finance co-chair Tom Loeffler resigned on Sunday, after revealing that h`e had lobbied for the Saudi government as well as a European aeronautics company.

Obama slammed McCain at a town hall meeting in Billings, Mont., saying, "We need a president who sees government, not as a tool to enrich friends and high-priced lobbyists, but as the defender of fairness and opportunity for every American."

McCain knows his task is a tough one: Four out of five Americans think the country is on the wrong track.

McCain is also tied to the unpopular president, particularly on his unpopular war, which will likely hurt him, no matter how rosy a scenario he depicted in a speech last week in which he described the situation he envisions for the end of his first term in office, should he be elected.

In a speech last Thursday, McCain made these optimistic predictions: "By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom. The Iraq War has been won."

Winning the nomination may have been the easy part.