Some GOP swallow hard to embrace McCain

February 6, 2008 7:00:42 PM PST
One might expect Republican senators to cheer the prospect of a colleague becoming the party's presidential nominee. In the small and clubby Senate environment, however, John McCain's emergence as the undisputed GOP front-runner Wednesday caused a good bit of grumbling, downcast looks and strained attempts at diplomatic comments by associates who have felt the brunt of his sarcasm or clashed with him on policies.

"A lot of people around here are going to have to recalibrate their attitudes toward John McCain," said Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah, one of several Republican senators who have clashed with McCain.

"John needs to reach out" to conservatives who feel he has derided or ignored them on key issues, said Bennett, who has endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. "If he does, I think he can bring the party together. If he gloats and says 'In your face' to all his opponents, then he could create some problems. But I don't think John is that foolish."

Asked if senators have seen both sides of the Arizonan, Bennett smiled and slipped into the Senate chamber, out of reporters' range.

Senators in both parties prepared to greet the presidential race's front-runners Wednesday, as McCain, Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., left the campaign trail to vote for a proposed $205 billion economic stimulus package. McCain returned to Washington but made an eleventh-hour decision to skip the vote, aides to his campaign said.

Obama arrived in the chamber first for a mid-afternoon vote on an amendment. Later, Obama and Clinton who noticeably didn't shake hands during the State of the Union address, shared a few laughs with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

Kennedy, who has endorsed and campaigned for Obama, shook Clinton's hand and congratulated her on winning his home state - without his support. Laughing, Clinton teased that perhaps Kennedy's lack of support is the reason she won Massachusetts.

"I had a big sigh of relief when he endorsed you!" she kidded Obama, who laughed.

Both Democrats were surrounded by Democratic colleagues and looked happy to catch up with their peers, far from the straining ears of reporters in the gallery overhead. Clinton, chewing gum, looked relaxed while chatting with Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Dianne Feinstein of California.

Obama, meanwhile, was immediately surrounded by eight Democratic colleagues - not all of whom have endorsed him - who alternately slapped his back, patted his shoulder and leaned in to hear more about the night before. Obama's attention focused especially on Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Chuck Schumer of New York, neither of whom have endorsed him and both of whom are from states that Clinton won on Tuesday.

Many Democratic senators are torn between Clinton and Obama, two colleagues they generally admire. Republicans, meanwhile, are split between those who embrace McCain's independent, gung-ho style, and those who feel he has gone out of his way to dismiss evangelical leaders, deep tax cuts, expanded oil and gas exploration, and other touchstones of conservative orthodoxy.

"These are issues that are constantly brought up by conservatives, that give them some angst," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, another Romney supporter.

"McCain is going to have to reach out," said Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who supported Rudy Giuliani but has not yet followed the former New York mayor into the McCain camp.

In an interview, Hatch said he admired McCain's political skills and his stands on foreign policy and national security. But he spent the next eight minutes cataloging his disagreements on a half-dozen domestic issues.

"One of the worst bills in my 31 years here is McCain-Feingold," he said, referring to a campaign finance bill that restricted the political parties' ability to pour money into targeted races.

McCain voted against President Bush's first major tax cuts, which were "the hallmark of not just conservative Republicans but everybody else," Hatch said. McCain's support for a broad-based immigration bill, and his opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were wrong-headed, he said.

And when McCain helped a bipartisan band of senators block a showdown over Democrats' efforts to filibuster some of Bush's judicial nominations, "in the eyes of conservatives, he undermined the whole party," Hatch said.

Even McCain's sharpest critics in the GOP said they will support him if he is the nominee.

"Just because you disagree with someone doesn't mean you don't have some respect for his ability," said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who has often clashed with McCain on spending earmarks.

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said McCain can succeed as a candidate and as president because he can discipline himself to show a side that fellow lawmakers don't always see.

"When you become president, you take on a whole different persona," said Gregg, another Romney backer. "He's not going to be the John McCain who's out here on the floor just cutting the place up if people didn't agree with him."

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who had endorsed Fred Thompson, tried to put the best face on things.

"You can argue that, with his very moderate positions on a lot of issues that have angered some Republicans, that could make him a better contender against Hillary Clinton," Inhofe said.