It's only April 2006, but John McCain isn't wasting any time in the 2008 presidential sweepstakes.
For months, the Republican from Arizona has been blitzing the country, meeting with donors, lending his star power to Republican candidates, building his political team, and courting constituencies who spurned him in 2000. And as a sitting senator with his name on controversial immigration legislation, he's faced some boos.
As the early front-runner for the GOP nomination, Senator McCain is no longer the outsider, nipping at the heels of his party's anointed presidential successor. He's the main show. The question is, can he maintain his image as a straight-talking maverick, with broad appeal to independents and some Democrats, even as he reaches out to religious conservatives and raises hackles on both the left and right with moves that his critics call "unprincipled"?
His speech on May 12 at Liberty University, at the behest of religious leader Jerry Falwell - whom McCain once called one of the "agents of intolerance" - has raised eyebrows.
"It seems what McCain is doing is the classic move that Richard Nixon patented - run right during the primaries, then run center for the general," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. "He's doing what he has to do. To a purist it doesn't smell right, but find me someone who hasn't done that who won."
When McCain touches down in New Hampshire for campaign-style events on Friday and Saturday, it will be a homecoming of sorts. In the 2000 primary, McCain trounced George W. Bush by 19 points, and his New Hampshire team is ready to pick up where it left off. Ditto for South Carolina, where he lost to the future president in 2000, amid hardball tactics, but where his backing by the popular Lindsey Graham, now a senator, is key.
Now McCain is angling to be Bush's heir apparent. He is wooing the president's financial backers, with some success, and has already signed on Bush's media man, Mark McKinnon. For now, observers say, both camps are still eyeing each other, but if McCain continues to show strength in polls of likely GOP primary voters, he will be hard to refuse, analysts say.
The camp that may be the hardest to woo is the social conservatives. In interviews, leaders speak of McCain in the harshest of terms, with no hope of redemption.
"Everybody understands, he hates the Christian right. That's a real problem," says Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation. Mr. Weyrich dismisses the Falwell speech invitation as just a "personal patchup."
"He wants to remake the Republican Party into pre-Reagan times," Weyrich continues. "Republicans traditionally stood for limited government, free enterprise, and a strong national defense. We added a fourth leg to that stool, which was traditional American values. And he wants to get rid of that."
But Weyrich agrees that as long as the social conservatives don't have a strong presidential hopeful of their own, it will be hard to "beat somebody with nobody."
Lou Sheldon, founder of the Traditional Values Coalition, also sees trouble in a McCain candidacy. When asked about McCain's effort to build bridges to social conservatives, Mr. Sheldon replied: "I don't see bridges, I see road blocks."
Sheldon is disappointed by McCain's position on gay marriage, in not fully embracing efforts to get a ban in Arizona, as well as the campaign-finance reform law that McCain sponsored and which religious conservatives oppose, saying it hinders their advocacy efforts.
Among rank-and- file social conservatives, McCain may fare better than among their leaders, analysts say. In South Carolina, which will again hold a key early primary in 2008, McCain could do well among GOP primary voters, says Jim Guth, an expert on the religious right at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.
"On the whole, despite some opinion in the national media to contrary, South Carolina Republicans have been generally pretty pragmatic," says Professor Guth. "They've usually supported the front- runner, establishment candidate. If McCain looks like a likely winner and enough important state officials are signed on, I don't see even the religious right mounting a major effort against him. There really isn't anybody out there at this point that they'll be deliriously supportive of."
Throughout Bush's presidency, McCain has behaved in turns both loyally when the chips are down (see Iraq and Dubai ports) and as a critic (see torture).
Whether intentionally or not, he has set himself up potentially to capture a wide swath of the GOP, and then some, analysts say. And as corruption scandals in the GOP whet voters' appetites for integrity in public leaders, that's another card McCain can try to play, they add.
"At the moment, McCain fits the bill of the type of candidate Republicans are looking for, in light of what's happening to the Bush presidency," says Dick Bennett, head of American Research Group polling firm. "He can be a conservative Republican to conservative Republicans, he can be more moderate to independent voters, because of the straight-talk aspect. He fits the profile of what different voters want."