WASHINGTON — John McCain continued his charm offensive toward his party's conservatives on Wednesday, but the presumptive Republican presidential nominee couldn't bring himself to fully shed his maverick image.
At a unity press conference with House Republican leaders and on a later conference call with conservative bloggers, McCain vowed to run on a standard conservative platform of lower taxes, smaller government, winning the war in Iraq and fiscal discipline.
Then a reporter brought up terrorist interrogation methods.
"I believe that waterboarding is torture and illegal," McCain declared, as always.
The Bush administration recently acknowledged waterboarding three suspected terrorists and said it reserves the right to do it under certain circumstances it won't define publicly. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell testified to the Senate last week that "it is a legal technique used in a specific set of circumstances."
But it's long been considered illegal under international human-rights conventions that the U.S. military honors — if not the CIA. So once again, McCain and the Bush administration weren't on the same page.
In addition, there was a clear culture clash between McCain and the House leaders as they confronted a crowded press conference.
Ten minutes into the session, an aide to one House member shouted, "Last question!"
McCain's press secretary stared daggers at the aide, who was clearly unfamiliar with the fact that McCain enjoys press encounters. McCain ignored the minion and kept taking questions, explaining, "I have to take his question. He was a resident of the (campaign) bus."
Finally, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, grabbed McCain by the shoulders and playfully pushed him toward the door even as McCain continued answering reporters' questions.
Earlier, Boehner acknowledged that "Senator McCain has had positions that have differed with some in our party. Clearly I've had some disagreements with Senator McCain over the years."
Nevertheless, a bandwagon is always worth jumping on, so McCain finally won the endorsements Wednesday of Boehner ("a strong advocate for the principles that I believe in"); Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam of Florida ("a man of great character and conviction"); and House Minority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri ("the best possible nominee for us to take back the House").
McCain's problems with conservatives are legendary, on issues from embryonic stem-cell research to immigration to campaign finance. Talk-radio hosts rail against him still. In the Virginia primary, which McCain won Tuesday by nine points, he lost to rival Mike Huckabee in the more conservative rural parts of the state.
Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, insisted Wednesday that conservatives were rallying behind McCain.
"When you look at what has happened in the last two weeks ... you've seen a landslide of high-profile Republican conservatives supporting John McCain," Davis said.
"The grand gesture is really being made on the part of conservatives to John McCain, saying, `We believe that you would make a good president and are willing to put our political capital to your disposal.' ... Other than a few voices out there, I don't hear the demand for John McCain to be anything other than John McCain."