John McCain is a political consultant's dream. A certified war hero, a reformer in a time of scandal, an experienced public official known by all, popular with Democrats and liberals as well as Independents and Republicans. And a man who has charmed the media by being unfailingly interesting and accessible.
A friend of McCain's told me that five years ago McCain thought he would be too old to run for president in 2008, but now he doesn't think that at all. And on Saturday, as he returned to Keene, New Hampshire, where he received 54 percent of the vote in the 2000 primary, McCain, now 69 and wearing the wounds not only of war but of a facial melanoma, seemed like a man back in the game.
In the last few months, several major players in George W. Bush's campaigns, including media adviser Mark McKinnon and political director Terry Nelson, have started advising McCain and McCain has been saying more nice things about Bush than he used to. And in a hat trick designed to show both his political courage and wide appeal, he announced last week that he would make commencement speeches at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, Bob Kerrey's New School University in Manhattan and Ohio State University, in the center of the political universe.
This weekend, he was back in New Hampshire and his partner at a town meeting in Keene, Rep. Charlie Bass, admitted that in 2000 he had supported Bush over McCain, but made it clear that now they were all great buddies. Bass boasted to the Keene Sentinel that McCain could have played it safe and gone to a Republican town like Amherst but decided to go to the more liberal Keene State College for a trademark town meet.
McCain did have to answer tough questions from some liberals who want to impeach President Bush, are unhappy the Republican record on college loans and health care, and are not pleased with McCain's decision to let bygones be bygones with Falwell. Silas Bennett, a student at Keene State College, accused him of potentially legitimizing a "radical religious movement." McCain's answer that they would have an "honest disagreement" on that question didn't set too well with Bennett or with the Daily Show's Jon Stewart, who said earlier in the week he feared McCain was wooing the "crazy base vote."
But McCain's alliance with Ted Kennedy on immigration has not gone over well with much of that base and a number of Republicans in New Hampshire pressed him to defend it. In Keene, a questioner was viscerally upset with the idea that McCain bragged about being with 2,000 Irish at a rally in Yonkers, N.Y., and he asked if they were undocumented Irish. (McCain claimed it was impossible to know.) The man then asserted that there is no job Americans won't do and accused businesses of just looking for cheap labor.
Again, McCain suggested a "respectful disagreement," but that exchange and the one with the student about Falwell underscored the difficulty McCain will have maintaining his all-things-to-all-people image.
McCain seems to have decided that if he wants to win the Republican nomination and compete in Iowa, where the religious conservatives are well organized, then he has to diffuse some of the anger he created in 2000 when he attacked the religious right in a speech in Virginia Beach and referred to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "forces of evil." He has said in the past that that was just a sarcastic line and on Saturday passed off his temperament in those days as short-termed self-pity following the brutal South Carolina primary.
He and his advisers contend he has not changed any of his positions in his attempt to stress his conservative bona fides, but he is walking a fine line right now. As the Straight Talk Express takes a right turn, he risks losing his strong popularity with Democrats and Independents. His people skills are strong and in New Hampshire this weekend, people seemed to settle for honestly disagreeing. But as his political opponents on the right and left start to focus on him, and his admirers in the press start to treat him as a serious prospect for president, McCain may find that voters with whom he honestly disagrees wind up voting for candidates with whom they honestly agree.