WASHINGTON — When Bob Dole was running for president in 1988, top campaign strategist Donald J. Devine shuddered when John McCain accompanied the candidate.
"We'd be all over them. We didn't want McCain on the plane with Dole," Devine laughed. McCain was too unpredictable, too respected by Dole and too likely to offer him advice that was at odds with conservative dogma, he said.
McCain's never changed, said Devine, now the editor of an American Conservative Union (ACU) Foundation publication. Other Republican activists, as well as people who've worked closely with McCain, offer the same assessment: As president, they say, you never know what McCain might do.
If there's one constant to his 25 years in Congress, the last 21 in the Senate, it's that McCain has voted with conservatives often enough to have a legitimate claim to have been, as he frequently puts it, "a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution."
But he's also bolted from the right often enough to invite suspicion from true believers. Asked if McCain could be trusted as a conservative, for instance, Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, smiled and said, "I'm going to dodge that question."
Chris Cox, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, praised most of McCain's votes on guns, but quickly added, "We've had some high-profile disagreements."
McCain's lifetime rating from the ACU, considered the authority on conservative rankings, is 82.3, though it dropped in recent years and was 65 in 2006, when five senators had a perfect score.
His record is hard to assess. National Journal, which ranks members according to the political tilt of their votes, found that since Republicans took control of the Senate in 1995, "McCain has moved steadily to the middle" and by 2006 was the 46th most conservative senator.
But the ACU found that in 2002, when he finally pushed through his ban on soft money — campaign funds that could be raised and spent in unlimited amounts — his conservative rating was still 78.2 percent.
That's because McCain votes with conservatives on key litmus test issues such as abortion, gun control and tax cuts most of the time. And he's a strong supporter of the Iraq war.
But he defies orthodoxy enough to add a dash of uncertainty to gauging how he'd govern if elected president.
In 2001, for instance, the Arizona senator defied the newly elected President Bush on Bush's top priority, his $1.35 trillion tax cut. Today, he says he opposed that cut, as well as another in 2003, because there weren't enough spending reductions to offset the resulting increase in the budget deficit — classic fiscal conservatism.
But in 2001, McCain said his chief reason for opposing Bush's cut was that it gave too many breaks to the wealthy and not enough to lower-wage earners. His amendment to skew the cuts to benefit more middle-class taxpayers failed, and he was one of only two Republicans to vote against the Bush package.
In 2003, McCain opposed a new, $350 billion tax-cut plan, saying it was "not appropriate until we find out the cost of the war and the cost of reconstruction."
Such votes are heresy to many conservatives, who've made tax cuts their signature issue since the 1970s. McCain has tried to make amends, saying he would extend the cuts, many of which are set to expire in 2010. And he boasts to audiences that he's never voted for a tax increase.
Conservatives think that McCain will probably stand with them on taxes, and they also have qualified praise for his recent evolving stand on immigration. They had been furious after McCain teamed with Republican nemesis Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., to push legislation that would give many undocumented aliens a path to citizenship.
The effort failed, despite a push from Bush, and caused McCain problems early in the campaign. But now he's saying he'll secure the border first — a bow to political reality that also happens to be music to many conservatives' ears.
"Immigration is a big thing," said Jed Babbin, editor of Human Events, a conservative magazine. "People are not willing to let go of that issue."
What piques conservatives most, however, is a law that many consider to be McCain at his maverick best — or worst, depending on one's point of view: His relentless championing of the ban on soft money, which he pushed to enactment in 2002.
"In the eyes of conservatives, it's the worst thing he ever did," said Alfred Regnery, publisher of the American Spectator, a conservative magazine.
At the NRA, despite McCain's consistent opposition to gun and ammunition bans, lobbyist Cox still recoils when he talks about the soft-money ban. Asked if he could trust McCain as president, Cox said, "Two people I certainly do not trust are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama."
And McCain? "We have disagreed," Cox said.
Ask any of these activists, or even his Senate colleagues, and they say that despite his voting record, one never knows what McCain might do.
Devine, for instance, thought about whom McCain might appoint to the Supreme Court.
"Who knows?" Devine said with a shrug. McCain frequently says he'd like to appoint justices in the mold of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, Bush appointees who are conservative favorites.
McCain's congressional career offers only this clue: If he believes something to be correct, he'll pursue it relentlessly, even if it means breaking the Senate code of compromising to get 80 percent of what one wants.
It took McCain years to get the soft-money ban passed. When the landmark 1996 overhaul of telecommunications regulations came up for a final vote, McCain cast the lone Republican dissent, saying it didn't go far enough in deregulating the industry. And in 2003, he was one of six Republicans voting for major legislation to revamp policy on climate change.
Regnery thinks that a President McCain would wind up being a fairly reliable Republican. Devine, too, is hopeful, because like many movement conservatives, he considers McCain "cynical."
"He will probably be reasonably conservative on most issues," Devine said. "Not because he believes it, but because he knows that's where his bread is being buttered."