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Florida Republicans have an opportunity Tuesday to provide some clarity in a muddled presidential primary. With a win here, John McCain would build on his victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina and become the clear front-runner heading into the many contests on Feb. 5. The Arizona senator offers the best hope among the Republicans to bring change to the White House and restore America's reputation in the world.
In some respects, McCain is a throwback. At a time when most Americans are rarely asked to sacrifice for their country, his heroic survival for more than five years of torture and isolation in Vietnam prison camps still stirs the soul. While other candidates switch positions based on opinion polls and focus groups, he sticks to his convictions regardless of the political price. McCain is as genuine and unvarnished as some of his competitors are programmed and polished.
While McCain has spent 25 years in Congress, he regularly has challenged conventional political thinking and the Republican establishment. He has told corn-fed Iowans he does not support farm subsidies, Michigan voters that all of the lost jobs in auto plants aren't coming back and Floridians that he does not support a national catastrophe fund to lower property insurance rates. He successfully fought the Republican leadership to bring about campaign finance reform. For years, he has been one of the nation's strongest critics of pork-barrel spending and the abuse of earmarks in the federal budget. Refusing to pander for votes and sticking to his convictions are among McCain's greatest strengths.
That does not mean McCain is unable to reach across party lines, which would be essential for a Republican president dealing with a Congress controlled by Democrats. He has worked with Senate Democrats over the years on issues ranging from HMO regulation to embryonic stem cell research. He was a key member of the so-called "Gang of 14," a bipartisan group of senators that brokered an end to a deadlock over President Bush's judicial appointments. His ability to transcend partisanship and his personal integrity enhances his appeal among independent voters who were critical to his early primary wins.
Only Republicans will vote in Florida's primary, and McCain's biggest challenge remains winning over conservative voters in his own party. Many of those voters remain angry over his lack of emphasis of social issues and his support of comprehensive immigration reform and caps on greenhouse gas emissions. They forget that McCain's overall voting record is more conservative than his maverick reputation suggests - and that immigration and global warming will be high on the next president's agenda.
We have our own disagreements with McCain on some significant issues. He opposes abortion rights, although he does not make that the centerpiece of his campaign. He now says President Bush's tax cuts should be made permanent, but we agree that the alternative minimum tax meant for the wealthy and now targeting the middle class is unfair. McCain also has consistently supported the war in Iraq, where we see little hope of a positive outcome. Instead of suggesting a timetable for withdrawing American troops, he talks about reducing casualties and suggests our troops could have a significant presence there for years to come.
But McCain also was an early critic of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's mismanagement of the war. He regularly called for additional troops, and the Bush administration's surge has reduced the violence even if it has not produced the political changes vital to Iraq's future and our departure. The former prisoner of war also knows something about torture, and he has stood up to the administration and called the waterboarding of suspected terrorists during interrogations what it is: torture. Such straight talk is rare in Washington, and McCain is more of a clear-eyed realist than any of the other Republican candidates.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani virtually set up housekeeping here and made Florida the key to his entire campaign. But he has offered little beyond recounting his 9/11 experiences, a hurricane catastrophe fund plan that lacks specifics, massive tax cuts and an extension of the Bush administration. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee cannot distinguish public service from his personal religious beliefs as a former Baptist preacher. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney helped steer his state toward universal health care, but he has backtracked on that commitment as a presidential candidate. He has switched positions on so many issues in an unsuccessful attempt to rebuild the Reagan coalition that it is unclear whether he has any core beliefs.
McCain has not compromised his values, but that does not mean he is inflexible. He rebuilt his campaign after it almost collapsed last year, bloated with consultants and nearly broke. After losing the 2000 South Carolina primary to Bush, he spent eight years cultivating relationships that contributed to his victory there this year. He continues to support broad immigration reform despite last year's failed attempt, but he now concedes the borders must be secured before the public debate can refocus on a more comprehensive effort.
At 71, the white-haired McCain is not the typical face of change. He has the resume of a government insider. But his honor, integrity and independence set him apart. Among the Republicans, he represents the best opportunity for changing the culture in Washington, repairing our reputation in the world and rebuilding the trust many Americans have lost in their government. The Times recommends John McCain in Tuesday's Republican primary.
[Last modified January 25, 2008, 15:30:48]