“I think a lot of people don’t exactly get where I’m at,” said Senator John McCain last month. So the G.O.P. candidate for President is going around the U.S. to loyal Republican gatherings to set them straight. “I’ve always been a conservative,” he told the New York Times. As the clear and active Republican front runner for 2008, McCain is not just a conservative. Otherwise why would he be so controversial among the party’s base? He favors stronger auto-industry regulation and campaign-finance reform with anti-special-interest sound bites. He passed through Congress an antitorture bill widely seen as a rebuke to George W. Bush. McCain opposed the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and ’02 as unfairly tilted to the wealthy and reckless at a time of large deficits. But just as the hard right readies to reject his bid, the other McCain reappears. He is a foreign policy hawk; he supports Bush in staying the course in Iraq and even sending more troops. He backs many Bush priorities, including private Social Security accounts, school vouchers and deep cuts in nondefense spending. He now supports keeping the tax cuts.
Can McCain, 69, juggle what he sees as a problem-solving, independent pragmatism rooted in conservative philosophy with what others see as expediency and pandering? My guess is he can. The G.O.P. power brokers and right-wing conservatives in the precincts will need him as much as—if not more than—he needs them. In a field of uninspiring alternatives, they will prefer electable McCain to the looming Hillary Clinton.