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The GOP has a long memory for positions outside the box.
By JENNIFER LIBERTO, Times Staff Writer
Published January 22, 2008
JACKSONVILLE - Conservative talk radio pundits roar at him. Party insiders quietly grind their teeth. Columnist George Will calls him a closet Democrat.
As the presidential campaign unfurls across Florida, with candidates fanning out from South Florida to Pensacola on Monday, a central question undergirds the drama of who might win. The question is this: Why don't Republicans like Sen. John McCain very much?
He's a bona fide war hero, a high-profile defender of the war in Iraq, a consistent opponent of abortion and about the noisiest opponent of federal spending in the U.S. Senate.
Yet his two big primary victories, in New Hampshire three weeks ago and Saturday's vote in South Carolina, came because he was able to draw from a deep well of support among independent voters.
Among Republicans alone, McCain has yet to come in first, which is no idle statistic since Florida's primary is closed to independents.
"McCain has taken some positions that are not 'idealistically' within the very narrow limits of how people define conservative-ism," said Tom Slade, a McCain supporter and former Republican Party of Florida chair.
McCain says his naysayers within the GOP just don't like his tendency to call it like he sees it.
"I came here to Jacksonville to tell people what they want to hear," he said at a press conference at a private airport, "and sometimes what they don't want to hear."
But conservative voters don't see it quite that way.
"He doesn't always line up with what we believe in," said Chandra Judy, 34, of Orlando, who was waiting for Mike Huckabee to arrive. "I think it's not really distrust; I think they're looking at his record. When the issues came up, how did he vote?"
Her examples include McCain's support of an immigration bill, which he co-wrote with liberal icon Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, that would have granted illegal immigrants a way to become citizens after paying fines and fees and meeting other requirements.
There are other votes, too. McCain opposed President Bush's tax cuts in 2001, and also voted against them in 2003. He said he opposed them first because they carried no companion restrictions on spending and then because the Iraq war had begun and he thought cutting taxes was ill-advised during war.
In 2006, McCain voted to extend the tax cuts because he said letting them phase out by then would have amounted to a tax increase.
But to Republicans who have watched McCain and winced, it isn't just that his positions have been bad. His timing has stung, too.
Republican consultant Brett Doster, who worked on Bush's campaigns, said McCain's public criticism of the early Iraq strategy irked administration supporters. McCain remains a vocal critic of the early strategy, and Doster said his early call for more troops still isn't recalled fondly by conservatives - even though McCain turned out to be right.
"For a lot of conservatives, there have been some real pressure points in this administration, and Republicans, as a whole, have kind of closed ranks," Doster said. "McCain was a contrarian at times when people didn't like it."
And another thing
Local Republican leaders are still smarting, too, over McCain's signature legislative victory, the McCain-Feingold Act, which sharply limited the role party money could play in federal elections.
"This really hurt McCain with all the people like me, the insiders, because we're the ones who are so affected by McCain-Feingold," said Palm Beach County Party chairman Sid Dinerstien, who is uncommitted. "But we're also the ones who vote in all the primaries and also are supposed to get out the vote. That's why he doesn't do so well in primaries."
The campaign finance law is just one of several examples of McCain working with a Democrat to advance his agenda, something McCain himself touts on the campaign trail. But for some Republican voters, McCain works just a little too easily with Democrats.
McCain was part of the so-called Gang of 14, a collection of mostly moderate senators from both parties who brokered an end to a high-stakes dispute over Bush's judicial appointments. Although the group struck a deal that helped Bush get some long-delayed judges seated, McCain's affinity for compromise wasn't entirely appreciated.
"There's been a number of things that he has done while he has been in the Senate," said Walt Bagley, 62, from Casselberry. "Being in the Group of 14 trying to control everything, trying to support amnesty on immigration, his law on campaign finance."
Adding fuel to the fire these days is the resurfacing of reports that back in 2004, McCain was initially receptive to the possibility of becoming the running mate to Democratic Sen. John Kerry.
"You vote for people, because you believe you share common values. But if on the big issues, you've got big differences, it causes you to question how much in common you have," said Paul Bedinghaus, former Pinellas County GOP chairman. "A voter doesn't want to have to wonder what his presidential choice is going to do in appointing justices to the Supreme Court."
Times staff writers David DeCamp and Adam Smith contributed to this report.
[Last modified January 21, 2008, 22:48:25]