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GOP establishment hits trail to keep Bush ahead

Threatened by John McCain's momentum, key Republican leaders and lobbyists are campaigning to ensure their candidate wins.

By BILL ADAIR and MARY JACOBY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2000


WASHINGTON -- As Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign has picked up momentum, it has sent fear through Washington lobbyists and the Republican establishment.

Concerned that McCain's campaign threatens the established powers in the nation's capital, a platoon of key Republicans and powerful lobbyists are parachuting into South Carolina and other states to boost the effort of Texas Gov. George W. Bush. They're portraying McCain as a liberal and saying his reforms jeopardize conservative gains of the past 20 years.

Several GOP senators, including Paul Coverdell of Georgia and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, have been campaigning for Bush recently. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, an Arkansas Republican who made his name during the impeachment of President Clinton, has visited South Carolina three times for Bush and is headed to Washington state this weekend. Former Rep. Gerald Solomon, a New York Republican who is now a lobbyist, was flying to South Carolina on Friday afternoon to speak to veterans groups.

McCain supporters say the GOP leaders are rushing into action because they fear McCain would upset the Washington status quo.

Most of the GOP establishment has already endorsed Bush, so if McCain is elected, he could play hardball and deprive Bush backers of administration jobs, access or government contracts.

"I know for a fact that John will remember who has been with him since the beginning and who has not," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a McCain supporter.

McCain has made enemies on Capitol Hill because he calls attention to members' pork barrel projects. His web site highlights these projects with an animated pig. Also, his crusade for campaign finance reform threatens the close relationship between special interests and the Republicans who run Congress.

"It's about the money," said Orson Swindle, a campaign supporter who was a prisoner of war with McCain in North Vietnam. Swindle said the Republicans supporting Bush are concerned with "staying in office and perpetuation of the status quo. These guys don't want to take on the critical issues of the country because when they do, they offend the people who keep them in office."

McCain has represented Arizona in Congress for nearly 18 years -- four years in the House and almost 14 in the Senate -- but he is still something of an outsider in the clubby halls of the Capitol. Thirty-nine of his Senate colleagues have endorsed Bush, while only four have endorsed McCain. It's the same story in the House, where a majority of Republicans have backed Bush.

"I think there is some overall concern that (McCain) appears to be running against the Congress," said Rep. Tillie Fowler, a Jacksonville Republican who backs Bush.

If McCain should get the nomination, some Republicans are afraid he will hurt the party's chances of keeping control of the House because he has been so critical of Congress. At the same time, pollsters say McCain could draw many new people -- Democrats as well as independents -- into the Republican party, perhaps diluting the power of the old-timers.

Many conservative groups and lobbyists oppose McCain because they would be crippled by his campaign reform plan. It would ban soft money, the unregulated campaign expenditures that give their groups clout by allowing them to run ads endorsing candidates.

"We conservatives resent John McCain and what he's trying to do to our cause," said Solomon, now a Washington lobbyist. "The truth is that John McCain is no conservative."

Former Sen. Dan Coats says McCain has ruffled too many feathers in Washington.

"He is promoting issues that are somewhat of a direct threat to the established order of things in the Republican Party, and he has personalized them in one sense by labeling those who don't agree with him as having been corrupted by the system," Coats, a Washington lobbyist, told National Journal. "It is his allegation of corruption and the implication of sellout that I think personalizes (the debate) and produces the visceral reaction."

Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission who is now the McCain campaign general counsel, adds: "The whole point of John McCain is he's an independent guy who has his own views on issues. I think a lot of the Washington establishment thought George Bush would be more malleable. He's an outsider who will need a guide on Capitol Hill. John McCain doesn't need a guide on Capitol Hill."

But Bush supporters disagree.

They say they like Bush because he has been a good governor and adheres closer to Republican principles on issues such as tax cuts than McCain does.

Hutchinson said he has campaigned for Bush largely because he likes the Texas governor's tax proposal. He said McCain alienated many Republican voters when he attacked Bush's tax plan "using Democrat language" that the plan does too much for the rich.

"I don't think that was too popular with the Republican base," Hutchinson said.

Bush "represents the core values of the Republican party," said Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., who has endorsed him.

McCain's outsider campaign has gotten lots of attention, "but John is now going to be under closer scrutiny," Mack said. "I think Republicans are going to find they have differences with him on tax policy and domestic policy."

McCain supporters have been especially angered by Americans for Tax Reform and the National Right to Life Committee, conservative issue-advocacy groups that receive Republican soft money and have run television attack ads against him.

In 1996, for example, the Republican National Committee directed $4.6-million to Americans for Tax Reform, a group headed by Grover Norquist, who has also held lucrative lobbying contracts with Microsoft and other corporate interests.

"Groups like Americans for Tax Reform have done well receiving large transfers of party soft money. If there's no soft money, all of that changes," Potter said.

After the National Right to Life Committee endorsed Bush this week, McCain remarked bitterly that the anti-abortion group has "turned a cause into a business."

The establishment's panic over McCain's rise suggests to his supporters the experiences of another Republican president -- a man McCain has called his hero: Theodore Roosevelt.

"He was really disliked by the Republican establishment. He was put on as vice president (to William McKinley) over the objections of the establishment. He had been in Washington, had a mind of his own, and was a fighter," said Potter, who also noted that Roosevelt pushed through a bill banning corporate campaign contributions -- the equivalent of McCain's fight against modern-day soft money.

Potter recalled the words of then-RNC Chairman Mark Hanna after McKinley was killed by an assassin in 1901, elevating Roosevelt to the presidency. Hanna remarked famously, "Anything can happen now that that damn cowboy is in the White House."

McCain's rise has interrupted the plans of some Republicans who were already talking about who would be named to Bush's cabinet.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who is known to be angling for the position of secretary of state in a Bush administration, said he was disappointed by McCain's surge because Bush appeared to be putting "a strong team of foreign policy advisers" together on the assumption that he would win the nomination.

"You can already see the fleshing out of an administration," Lugar said.

Lugar said he endorsed Bush before the primary season began because "that's where the action was, as most people saw it."

"There are a lot of people who committed themselves early to Bush," said Potter, the McCain campaign general counsel. "I don't think in most cases they are anti-McCain or pro-Bush. They've bought a stock and the stock is going down."

-- Staff writer Sara Fritz contributed to this report, which included information from National Journal.

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