Five Key Questions About John McCain

The front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination is something of an enigma.


WASHINGTON, Feb. 7, 2008— -- 1. Coming out of Super Tuesday with a big lead in delegates, what is John McCain's strategy for securing the Republican nomination?

Simply put: more of the same.

The Arizona senator will try to amass the 1,191 delegates he needs to become the GOP presidential nominee by winning primaries and caucuses while waiting for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to conclude that remaining in the race is expensively hopeless or hopelessly expensive.

McCain will engage in much friendlier competition with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The two are genuine friends and unlikely to launch the kind of harsh attacks on one another that McCain and Romney fired back and forth.

McCain can also survey the battlefield of remaining state contests and see that it favors him, not Huckabee. With the exception of Texas, most of the key primaries are in states where McCain can be expected to be strong, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.

McCain is preparing for a war of attrition that he believes he cannot lose.

2. Can McCain make peace with those Republican conservatives who are suspicious of or just plain dislike him?

With some, yes.

They have or will likely come around if and when it becomes certain McCain will be the Republican nominee. Those are the pragmatists.

But there is a sizeable number of conservatives who will never accept him. An ABC News/Washington Post poll this week found that he has made significant gains with conservatives and evangelicals since December. But Super Tuesday revealed the depth of conservative resistance.

Romney did better among self-described conservative voters. It was revealing that even in his home state of Arizona, where immigration was the No. 1 issue with Republicans, Romney beat McCain. He has his work cut out for him.

That work begins in earnest today with a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference's annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

McCain's weakness with conservatives is his strength with moderates and independent voters, among whom he enjoys stronger appeal than any Republican presidential candidate in many years. Polls suggest he could put blue states into play: California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania.

And he would be a tough opponent for the Democratic candidate in crucial swing states such as Ohio and Missouri.

3. What exactly do his conservative critics have against him?

The list is long. Here is a partial list: campaign finance reform, favoring measures to address climate change, opposing a federal same-sex marriage ban, voting against 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, being "soft" on illegal immigration by sponsoring a bill that would allow millions of people in the country illegally to obtain so-called earned U.S. citizenship. Critics say that amounts to amnesty.

All of this is presented by his harshest critics to show that McCain is a kind of closeted liberal.

Then, there is the more ambiguous argument against him that he is untrustworthy, hot-headed and takes perverse glee in causing trouble for members of his own party.

4. How did McCain come back from his "near death experience" last summer when he almost had to end his presidential quest?

McCain attributes his comeback to three factors:

I would add three other factors:

5. How big a part of his campaign themes is his support for the war in Iraq? Isn't that a risky position for a general election campaign?

To McCain, the war in Iraq and the war against terrorism are inseparable.

His support for the war is a constant refrain in his speeches. He believes the war is just and necessary, although he stresses that it was mishandled early on. He blames former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for the missteps preceding the surge.

At the end of every campaign speech, without fail, he tells the story about a bracelet he wears on his right wrist. It was given to him by the mother of Army Cpl. Matthew Stanley, killed in Iraq in 2006. The bracelet has Stanley's name on it. The moral of the story is that he promised Stanley's mother that he would assure that her son did not die in vain.

The larger message: We will stay in Iraq until we win. He has said the United States may have a troop presence in Iraq for "100 years" -- not necessarily fighting for 100 yeas but akin to the security presence of American troops in South Korea for 50 to 60 years.

The potential political risk is that even if the surge continues to reduce violence, the war remains unpopular with the general public. His adamant support for the war could hurt him with the moderates and independents with whom he is very strong.

And yet, there is this eccentricity about support for McCain: In one of the strangest of political oddities, many people back himself despite what he espouses, not because of it.

Among Republicans who are against the war in Iraq, McCain has a large lead over his rivals who over the past year were much less vocal in their support of it. Why? Because they believe he has the courage of his convictions even if they disagree with those convictions.

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