McCain's gambit: Sway Washington from Arkansas

Despite agreeing to put campaign-finance reform off, he's holding town meetings across US to build support.

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One week. That's all it took for John McCain and his signature crusade, campaign-finance reform, to reenter Washington's political dialogue.

True, the Arizona senator backed off pushing the issue immediately in Congress, giving the Bush administration some time to move ahead with its early agenda.

But Monday's town meeting in Little Rock, Ark., where Mr. McCain and his colleagues sought to generate grassroots support for overhauling campaign finance, represents a warning to the political establishment that the senator won't retreat from the issue in coming months.

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Indeed, over at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, as the genial feelings of President Bush's first week turn to more realpolitik, the White House confronts a delicate proposition: How to handle the war hero and the issue he has championed to great effect?

The Republican leadership in Congress and Mr. Bush have expressed disapproval over the bill McCain and his Democratic partner, Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, have put forward. But the senators, along with advocacy groups like Common Cause and Public Citizen, are promising to go state to state, holding a series of town meetings aimed at creating a tide of public opinion that will make the bill hard to stand against.

"That is clearly our strategy," says Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause, who was part of the Arkansas meeting. "We are out here building broad-based support outside the beltway for a real measure, a real victory, and that means a bill the president will sign."

The McCain-Feingold bill would ban soft money - unlimited contributions that go not to candidates but to political parties - and would place restrictions on ads run by special interest groups in the last 60 days of a general election and the last 30 days of a primary campaign.

For the past few years, some form of the McCain-Feingold bill has been repeatedly introduced and received majorities in both the House and Senate. Each time, however, the bill was blocked by Senate Republicans, and in particular the leadership, which managed to gather the 41 votes needed to filibuster it.

This year, prospects for passage look markedly better.

Last November's election took five Republicans from the Senate and replaced them with five Democrats - all in favor McCain-Feingold. And in early January, the bill got an unexpected boost when Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi announced he would support the bill.

In response to the changed atmosphere, Senate majority leader Trent Lott announced last week that he was scheduling time in late March to take action on the bill. More important, Senator Lott said he "probably would" vote to stop any filibuster attempt.

That could create real problems for Bush, who dueled with McCain over the issue last year in the Republican primaries.

The White House has been oblique in describing exactly where the president stands on McCain-Feingold, saying Bush and McCain are discussing the specifics. During the campaign, Bush made it clear he was opposed to the bill's main tenets. But for Bush, who came to Washington promising to end gridlock and change the tone, vetoing a measure with large popular support could be politically problematic.

"People want campaign-finance reform," says pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center for the People and the Press here. "If McCain can keep the issue on the agenda and in the media, I think he'll get some traction on it," creating "a lot of pressure for Bush to sign it."

Of course, Bush isn't alone in his opposition to the bill. Several Republican constituencies that are big political donors, such as the Christian Coalition and the National Association of Manufacturers, have traditionally opposed it. And party organizations, which are already losing power in an age of personality-driven campaigning, would be stripped of a tool that enhances party discipline. Particularly in the Senate, Democrats and Republicans are increasingly acting as free agents, looking out for individual - not party - concerns. Without the ability to disperse soft money, parties would lose even more leverage in this environment.

And there are other concerns. GOP Sen. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas says he supports a soft-money ban, but is concerned about the free-speech issues the bill raises, particularly the restrictions McCain-Feingold would place on issue ads.

"The senator is happy there's a debate going on - in Arkansas and elsewhere," says an aide to Senator Hutchinson. "But just having a meeting in Arkansas isn't going to make him support the bill. He thinks there are serious constitutional issues."

The question now is what form campaign-finance reform will take if and when it emerges from Congress. Supporters worry that McCain-Feingold's opponents will offer a plethora of amendments that water the bill down and weaken support for it.

There are also questions about the future of McCain himself. For the past year and a half, the issue has been his raison d'etre, a major force behind his rise to political stardom, and perhaps inextricably linked to his public image.

Some in Washington wonder if passing campaign-finance reform would actually hurt the Arizona senator, robbing him of his best issue. But Mr. Kohut says McCain's work on the bill will likely only make him more of a force. "The support behind McCain has to do with his personal credibility. If they manage to pass something real, it can only help him."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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