WASHINGTON — Around the country, top organizers in Sen. John McCain’s failed presidential bid say they feel it’s very unlikely he would leave the Republican Party to run for president in 2004 as an independent.
Political speculation went into overdrive last weekend about McCain, who sparked intense excitement among moderate Republicans, independents and some Democrats during the 2000 campaign. McCain had an extended visit at his Arizona home with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat, at the same time as news reports that some supporters were talking informally about a possible McCain run as an independent.
Some analysts still predict it’s more of a question of when McCain will do that, rather than if he will. But close friends and advisers from around the country aren’t convinced.
“I just don’t think there’s a chance that John will switch parties,” said Deb Gullett, an Arizona Republican lawmaker who was a longtime McCain staff member. “He’s spent his entire career trying to broaden the base of the Republican Party. I just don’t buy it. He’s totally ingrained in the goals of the party.”
McCain said last weekend he has no intention of leaving the party and running for president as an independent. Close advisers say their speculative discussions of his future plans were blown out of proportion by the media, which had just feasted that week on the defection of Vermont Sen. James Jeffords from the GOP.
The flurry of interest about McCain struck a nerve, however.
“When I heard it on the radio I was thrilled,” said Maureen Barrows, a McCain campaign organizer from Exeter, N.H. “I thought ... this is too good to be true.”
Barrows drives around with her “McCain for President” bumper sticker and frequently gets a honk of appreciation from passing motorists.
McCain won the New Hampshire primary last year before ultimately losing the GOP nomination to George W. Bush.
“There’s certainly a huge constituency that would support him,” said the Republican, a county commissioner in Rockingham County.
When a trailer featuring McCain talking about gun safety was shown at a Washington movie theater last weekend before “Pearl Harbor,” the audience broke into scattered applause and someone shouted: “McCain for President.”
In Washington state, McCain supporter Ralph Monroe fielded calls from many Republicans over the weekend about the talk of McCain and the presidential race.
“We had quite a number of calls to our home,” said Monroe, a businessman and former state co-chair with his wife for McCain. “They trust John McCain and realize he’s trying to move the Republican Party back to the middle.”
Monroe said he believes McCain will remain the Republican Party’s power broker, but noted: “I think that John McCain has a very dedicated group of followers all across America, and wherever he wants to go, they will follow.”
In Michigan, state Sen. John Schwarz said he thinks the recent McCain activity has been about pulling the GOP back toward the center, not a prelude to an independent run.
“He has his pulse on where the majority of people are more than the party does right now,” said Schwarz, who was a co-chairman of McCain’s Michigan campaign. “The party would be well served to swing the turret more toward the middle.”
While many McCain supporters said they don’t anticipate anything as dramatic as an independent presidential candidacy, former New Hampshire McCain chairman Peter Spalding said it’s impossible to rule it out.
“It’s so dependent on what type of position President Bush is in a couple of years from now and what happens in the midterm elections,” he said. “If the Republicans hold their own, it takes some of the steam out of a candidacy by McCain.”
An independent run for president just isn’t a good fit, say longtime McCain friends like Hank Brown, a former U.S. senator from Colorado who now serves as president of the University of Northern Colorado.
“I know John McCain well and I think it doesn’t fit who he is,” Brown said. “I think it’s silly speculation by those who don’t know John McCain very well.”
Autoworker Kenneth Taylor of Lansing, Mich., an independent who often votes Democratic, backed McCain in the Michigan primary and says he would love to see McCain try again.
“He’s a determined enough individual he might just do it to prove to himself he could do it,” Taylor said.
“He may have been the son of an admiral, but he made it through six years of prison and he didn’t fold,” Taylor said McCain’s POW experience in the Vietnam War. “I was attracted to that.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — Will Lester covers polling and politics for The Associated Press.