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Position on detainee trials comes at political risk for GOP senators

WASHINGTON—One endured torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. One is a former Navy secretary and stalwart supporter of the military's priorities. One is a former military lawyer and a judge in the Air Force reserves.

All three are Republican senators, and together they're battling President Bush over how to handle detainees in the war on terrorism.

These three senators—John McCain of Arizona, John Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, respectively—say Bush's plan would damage U.S. credibility around the world, jeopardize the lives of U.S. troops captured in future wars and deny basic legal and human rights to suspected terrorists in U.S. custody. They're using their combined stature to advance a competing, bipartisan proposal.

But by their stand, each of the three senators is taking a substantial political risk.

"They think this is more important than politics," said John Hutson, former Judge Advocate General for the Navy.

McCain could alienate conservative Republicans when he needs them most. For several years he's worked hard to gain the trust of conservative Bush allies skeptical of his maverick streak.

He's worked his way into being the odds-on favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, but now he's breaking with his party's president on an issue that threatens to undermine Republican strategy for November's congressional elections—following Bush's leadership on national security. That could hurt him.

And he knows it. On Friday, while reiterating his opposition to Bush's plan, he released a statement whose first line read, "I respect very much the president's unwavering determination to protect America from terrorist attack." Still, he opposes Bush.

Katon Dawson, the Republican Party chairman in South Carolina, a key 2008 primary state, said: "South Carolina is certainly Bush country. Overwhelmingly, the communications we're getting are supporting the president. Obviously, the president is right on this issue. I think John McCain thinks he's right—McCain and Warner and Graham. I think people on the ground think they're wrong."

Graham could reap opposition to his re-election within his South Carolina base. Many conservative activists already were frustrated with him for blocking a conservative judicial nominee's confirmation and supporting legislation that would allow illegal immigrants to stay in the country.

"You just don't even know how people are bent out of shape!" said Kristin Maguire, a member of the state Republican Party's executive committee. "The holier-than-thou attitude of `I'm the attorney, I understand this better than you.'

"He has undermined this being an election point this year. He's taking it off the plate and he's making it easier for Democrats to run against incumbent Republicans in weak seats by making it OK to be weak on terrorism and national security."

In an interview Friday, Graham stood his ground.

"This is one of the most important things I will ever do. What experience I've had in life is relevant here. I think I owe it to my state and my nation to apply it in a way that's reasonable and constructive. Whatever political risk might come my way pales in comparison with our soldiers and other people who are risking everything they have, including their lives," Graham said.

Warner, 79, a World War II veteran and former Navy secretary, is slated to give up his chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee after this year. He enjoys broad bipartisan support in Virginia and is less obviously at risk by his stand.

Yet the renegade role doesn't come easily to this consummate diplomat and staunch Republican. Nevertheless, he takes great pride in defending the military, and many senior military leaders oppose Bush's position.

Warner implored reporters not to interpret his stand as defiance of Bush: "I still think we can work it through—I do not think negotiations have broken down."

If Democrats win control of the House of Representatives or the Senate in November, all three senators could suffer the sting of blame.

The House is poised to pass the administration's bill next week. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., favors it, too.

But with the support of most, if not all, Senate Democrats and a handful of moderate Northeastern Republicans, the three senators are expected to prevail in the Senate.

"These are people who have lived it," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. He was speaking of McCain, Graham and Warner.

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(McClatchy correspondents Steven Thomma and James Rosen contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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