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Military culture, pragmatism shape McCain

John McCain's military experience and Senate record show a presidential candidate who values integrity and getting things done.

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By the time McCain arrived in Washington, his personal life was in transition. His marriage was already falling apart – McCain accepts the blame – when he met and fell for the young, beautiful daughter of a wealthy businessman from Phoenix. In early 1981, McCain retired from the Navy, and he and his new wife, Cindy, settled in Arizona. As if by design, the congressman from the district near Phoenix suddenly retired, and McCain won the seat. Four years later, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater – the godfather of Republican conservatism, whom McCain had gotten to know during his Navy liaison days – retired and McCain easily succeeded him.

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In McCain's House and early Senate years, conservatives considered him "an upcoming conservative hero and a conservative stalwart in Congress," says David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU). Then in the late 1990s, McCain began to "move left," Mr. Keene says.

While McCain's lifetime ACU rating of 82 percent puts him within the conservative range (defined as 80 or above), that masks his annual scores of the past 10 years, which routinely dipped below 80, sometimes into the 60s. The nonpartisan National Journal magazine, in its member rankings, also found that McCain has moved toward the center since the mid-'90s, when the GOP took control of the Senate. When Mr. Bush became president, having defeated McCain in a contentious nomination battle, hard feelings were evident as McCain voted often against his positions.

McCain's presumptive nomination – made possible only because Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee split the conservative vote – has left some conservatives deeply dissatisfied.

And there's a larger problem: This presidential race will be fought in the center, and so McCain must walk an ideological tightrope, trying to convince the right that he really is conservative – or at least conservative enough – while going after the moderate and independent voters who may be more appreciative of his forays off the Republican reservation.

The McCain record

The senator's voting record shows consistency on some core Republican matters, such as opposition to abortion and support for free trade. He has also been an ardent supporter of the Iraq war from the start, but not always in lock step with how the White House has prosecuted it – for example, pushing early on for more troops than Bush was willing to send.

McCain has been a longtime crusader against earmarks, or "pork," the money legislators slip into bills for special projects in their states and districts.

In other areas, such as tax cuts, he is fairly consistent – except when he's not. In 2001, McCain was one of only two Republicans to vote against Bush's $1.35 trillion 10-year tax cut, complaining that it disproportionately benefited the rich. Two years later, he voted against additional tax cuts, repeating his earlier reason and also citing the cost of the Iraq war. Now he favors making the tax cuts permanent, arguing that letting them expire is essentially a tax hike.