WASHINGTON—The political landscape may be shifting in ways that would make it easier for Sen. John McCain of Arizona to win the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
He'll be among several potential candidates courting Southern and Midwest Republicans who are meeting this weekend in Memphis, Tenn., the first chance that party insiders will have to look at several would-be nominees in one place.
The conventional wisdom of the moment—that McCain could win the general election but not the Republican nomination because conservatives oppose him—may be changing. A convergence of three new forces could be reshaping the landscape just as Republicans begin deciding who'll lead their party into the post-Bush era:
_ First is a rising contempt in the heartland for politics as usual in Washington. That could help the maverick senator, who frequently reaches across party lines.
_ Second, many economic conservatives are shifting their emphasis from tax reductions to spending cuts, a McCain strength.
_ Third, charges of corruption against Republicans in Congress could cost the party seats next fall and add luster to McCain's carefully groomed image as a reformer.
The most significant change in Republican politics, of course, is the decline of President Bush's standing in the opinion polls.
A poll of five Southeastern states from Virginia to Florida—all of which voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004—found that a majority of the region now disapproves of his job performance. Overall, 52 percent disapproved and 43 percent approved, according to the poll by Elon University Institute for Politics and Public Affairs. The poll of 1,277 people, taken in two stages in late February, has an error margin of plus or minus 2.8 percent.
That not only helps explain the growing willingness of congressional Republicans to defy the president on some questions, such as foreign management of U.S. ports, it also underscores why McCain—often Bush's nemesis—may benefit from the president's shifting fortunes.
McCain can play both sides of this phenomenon. He fought an often-bitter battle with Bush for the 2000 nomination and has clashed occasionally with him since, but he also won favor from conservatives by campaigning for Bush in 2004.
"He did himself some good," said Bob Davis Jr., the chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party and the host of the weekend meeting. "But some will still remember things that were said back in 2000."
To be sure, some conservatives still don't like McCain. They don't like his opposition to some tax cuts, his push to ban torture of suspected terrorists and the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, which they charge curbed free speech by restricting political advertising before elections.
Some conservatives also take issue with McCain's role in a bipartisan "Gang of 14" senators who let Democrats retain the power to filibuster judicial nominees, even though they facilitated Senate approval of several nominees who previously had been blocked, and his proposed restrictions on lobbying.
"Dastardly," the American Conservative Union said of McCain's lobbying proposal.
"No Republican could expect to win the GOP nod after betraying his party's rank and file," anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist said of McCain's role in the judicial deal.
"I could not support him for president," influential conservative activist Paul Weyrich said.
Republican strategist Frank Luntz said McCain struck conservative insiders differently from those outside the corridors of power.
"His greatest difficulty is with the GOP elites," Luntz said. "They don't find him loyal. ... But he does well with rank and file."
Indeed, a new bipartisan "Battleground" poll found that nationally 68 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of self-identified conservatives held a favorable opinion of McCain. He also had a positive image among 67 percent of independents, 60 percent of Democrats, 54 percent of moderates and 67 percent of liberals. The survey of 1,000 "likely" voters was taken Feb. 12-15 and had an error margin of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
McCain was the only major political figure among six, including possible 2008 rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who had a favorable rating from a majority—65 percent for McCain, 46 percent for Clinton.
A key reason is that the poll found a majority of Americans in an anti-Washington mood, fed up with scandals and partisan bickering.
"For Senator McCain, his reputation as a maverick tirelessly working to reform the culture of Washington appears to be exactly what voters want," said Republican pollster Ed Goeas, who conducted the poll with Democrat Celinda Lake.
The conservatives' renewed focus on soaring nondefense spending also plays to a McCain strength: He's long been a nag about pork-barrel spending.
"Conservatives have woken from a slumber and realized the government has grown exponentially," said Marshall Wittmann, a former McCain aide who now works for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "McCain has been an often-lonely voice calling for a brake on government spending and more fiscal sobriety."
Also, McCain took the lead in pushing for more regulation of money in politics. The reputation he earned doing that could glow brighter amid the unfolding bribery scandal centered on disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Finally, McCain could benefit from the perception that Hillary Clinton may be the Democrats' presidential nominee in 2008. Nothing rouses Republicans more than the threat of the Clintons returning to the White House. And if it looks as if McCain is their best bet to beat Clinton, they might suppress their reservations and nominate him.
"The more the prospects of the Democrats being victorious," Wittmann said, "the more they'll take a new look at McCain."
For more on the Battleground Poll, go to www.gwnewscenter.org and look under "News Releases."
For more on Ed Goeas or his analysis of the poll, go to www.tarrance.com/battleground.html
McCain appeals to both sides. Here are some of his positions that appeal to liberals:
_ For ban on oil drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
_ Against ban on gay marriage.
_ For Sept. 11 investigation.
_ For reducing carbon-dioxide emissions.
_ Against $350 billion in tax cuts.
_ For ban on cruel and degrading treatment of foreign terrorism suspects.
_ For a compromise approach to immigration.
Positions that appeal to conservatives:
_ For $1.35 trillion in tax cuts.
_ Against Medicare prescription-drug benefit.
_ Supports Boy Scouts on gay controversy.
_ For ban on partial-birth abortion.
_ Against resolution supporting Roe v. Wade.
_ Against U.S. cooperation with International Criminal Court.
_ For ground forces in Kosovo.
_ For more defense spending.
_ For more troops in Iraq.
_ For Bush judicial nominees.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): John McCain
ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040528 MCCAIN bio
Need to map