McCain's Compass

Article excerpt

Veteran conservative leaders now fear John McCain's insurgent presidential candidacy could lead to a takeover of the GOP by the Eastern establishment, moderate-to-liberal wing of the party.

Conservatives who were on the frontlines of the Reagan revolution and who led the ground forces that spearheaded a movement that has largely kept the GOP in conservative hands for two decades, now see their hold on the party slipping away if Mr. McCain succeeds in beating George W. Bush for the nomination.

In a series of interviews since Mr. McCain routed Mr. Bush in the New Hampshire primary, these conservatives say that despite his posturing as a Reagan conservative, Mr. McCain is no conservative. They say his core campaign proposals represent a complete abandonment of party principles that would turn the GOP leftward.

Some see him as a Nelson Rockefeller or Nixon Republican who can swing widely in his positions -indeed, as President Nixon did when he ushered in a wave of new spending programs and agencies and could never say no to the editorial page of the New York Times.

"McCain says he is a Reagan conservative. That's absurd," said David Keene, the American Conservative Union president and a veteran of many GOP presidential campaigns.

"He has left the conservative wing of the Senate Republican Party and has moved into the liberal-moderate wing," Mr. Keene told me.

ACU compiles a widely followed rating index that tracks how liberal or conservative lawmakers vote. Mr. Keene said Mr. McCain's score plunged from an 86 percent lifetime rating to 68 percent last year.

"John McCain has pretty much repudiated his previous record," Mr. Keene said.

Many others agree with Mr. Keene's assessment of the Arizona maverick.

"I don't think he's a Reagan conservative," said Lyn Nofziger, who was President Reagan's White House political director. "I don't think he knows where he is. I think he's evolving and he's evolving leftward."

Take, for example, Mr. McCain's campaign finance bill to impose strict new controls on political advocacy groups. It has very little support among Republicans but is strongly supported by Bill Clinton, Al Gore and most Democrats. "If you find Democrats voting for your proposals, you have to begin wondering where you are on the political spectrum," Mr. Nofziger said.

Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner, who has been a major voice in defining the conservative agenda but usually shuns politics, is unusually blunt about what he thinks of Mr. McCain's views.

When I asked Mr. Feulner if he thought Mr. McCain's policy proposals represented generally accepted conservative thought, he told me, "No, I do not."

"He's not the person who would carry that flame forward," he said of the conservative agenda. …