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Quest for primary votes pulls McCain right

Matt Stearns
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

WASHINGTON -- To understand Arizona Sen. John McCain's attempt to rebrand himself from maverick to party loyalist, consider this simple principle: To win the Republican presidential nomination, it's helpful to appeal to Republicans.

McCain didn't do that enough in 2000, when his brief threat to George W. Bush's march to the Republican presidential nomination was fueled by independents and even self-described Democrats voting in so-called "open" Republican primaries.

But he's working hard to do so for 2008, when increased dissatisfaction with the Republican Party among independent voters is among the challenges he faces.

"I don't think the same coalition of voters he put together in 2000 will be there for him in 2008," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. "Independents looking for a fresh face won't be looking to McCain. ... He needs to appeal to the rank-and-file Republicans."

McCain's biggest victories in 2000 came in the influential New Hampshire primary, where he beat Bush 48 percent to 30 percent, and in Michigan, where he beat Bush 51 percent to 43 percent. Both Republican primaries were open to other voters -- independents could vote in New Hampshire, and both independents and Democrats could vote in Michigan.

In New Hampshire, exit polls found that McCain's margin was due to independents, who voted for him over Bush 62 percent to 19 percent. Bush won among self-identified Republicans by 41 percent to 38 percent.

In Michigan, McCain's performance among self-identified Republicans was even worse: Bush trounced him by more than 2 to 1. But McCain won the primary by winning two-thirds of independent voters. Plus, 17 percent of the voters in the Michigan Republican primary that year called themselves Democrats; 82 percent of them voted for McCain.

Of the seven presidential primaries that McCain won in 2000, exit polls found he won among self-identified Republicans only in Arizona, his home state.

Such results indicate that the majority of Republican primary voters in 2000 weren't taking the Straight Talk Express, McCain's campaign bus, where he outlined an agenda of change led by cleansing the stain of money from politics. Republicans preferred the traditional approach that Bush offered, and there's no reason to think that's changed.

"In 2000, there was a clear establishment candidate ... George W. Bush had a great following," said Nathan Gonzales, the political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan political-analysis firm. "He embodied and typified how many Republicans viewed their party."

That helps explain McCain's recent embrace of religious conservative political figures whom he'd disdained previously, such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell, as well as the senator's late conversion to supporting Bush's tax reductions, which he opposed a few years ago. Pro-Jesus and pro-tax cut Republicans have a distinct advantage in wooing the party activists who dominate the primary electorate.

Callers to McCain's national campaign headquarters, if put on hold, are treated not to music but to an excerpt from a McCain speech in which he avows: "I am convinced that the majority of Americans still consider themselves conservatives or right of center."

McCain's support of Bush's strategy for the war in Iraq is likely to help him among Republicans: A poll last month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that while 47 percent of all Americans think the U.S. will win in Iraq, 77 percent of Republicans do.

"Now folks have gotten to know him more," said Danny Diaz, a McCain campaign spokesman. "They understand he's a reliable conservative on the important issues that matter," citing McCain's lengthy record opposing abortion rights, working for fiscal discipline and supporting a strong national defense.

Stressing that record may alienate the independents who embraced McCain in 2000. But that's less risky in a primary campaign than one might imagine: A poll from the Pew Research Center released Thursday shows that only 40 percent of independents have favorable views of the Republican Party, down from 55 percent in 2001. Fifty-one percent of independents view the Democrats favorably, also down from 55 percent in 2001.

The percentage of independents who say they lean Democratic has risen from 12 percent in 2002 to 17 percent, while Republican-leaning independents have declined from 13 percent to 11 percent. Only 28 percent of independents are satisfied with the country's direction, 30 points lower than the percentage of Republicans who are.

"Their focus is on change," Michael Dimoc, the associate director at the Pew Research Center, said of independent voters. "The interest in who can bring more change is on the Democratic side. ... For Republican candidates, the importance of appealing to the GOP base is potentially higher if independent focus is on the Democratic primary."


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