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In retrospect, the whole scenario seems a little nutty, even for a newspaper editorial. But in March 2000, at the height of the media frenzy surrounding John McCain’s bid for the White House, the Atlanta Journal Constitution took time out to speculate about what a victory for the straight-talking Arizona senator might mean for the GOP establishment. “Should McCain win the nomination, the jig is up,” the paper’s editorial board wrote. “Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell fall out of power, their grip on the Republican Party broken. The money-changers — the lobbyists who change money into legislation — will be tossed from the nation’s secular temple. A new Republican party would be formed, still conservative on social issues, still distrustful of government, but willing to compete for votes on the basis of ideas, not campaign cash.” Six years later, it’s easy to laugh at such utopian musings. But the messianic power the paper vested in McCain as a redeemer of American politics is indicative of how many in the electorate continue to view the Arizona Republican. That image, however, masks the truth of McCain’s complex relationship with the Washington (or “Wershington,” as he says it) power grid. Toss lobbyists from the temple? Someone must have overlooked the fact that McCain’s 2000 campaign manager was lobbyist Richard Davis, who would go on to register a bevy of telecom clients — all of whom had big business before the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which McCain chaired until late 2004. During the 2000 race Big Telecom money poured into McCain’s campaign. Overall, the Center for Responsive Politics estimates that businesses with interests before the Commerce Committee contributed more than $500,000 to McCain’s presidential bid. DEAR SCUMBAG. . . Even though McCain is known for delivering campaign finance reform and as a catalyst for lobbying reforms that would for the first time require disclosure of lobbying activities by grass-roots activists, he has also been a D.C. politician for more than 20 years. Is he connected to K Street? Of course. In fact, he has developed close relationships with several highly influential lobbyists, including Charlie Black of BKSH & Associates. Robbie Aiken, a longtime lobbyist for an Arizona utility, is also close to McCain, having known him for 23 years and supported him in past campaigns. (McCain actually helped him land his first job with the company.) He even keeps an autographed picture of the maverick lawmaker on display in his office. It reads: “Dear Robbie, You �scumbag.’ Thanks for your friendship and support. John McCain.” “He calls everyone a scumbag,” says Aiken. “It’s a badge of honor. He doesn’t hate lobbyists. He just doesn’t suffer fools.” As McCain ponders a presidential run in 2008, he has the backing of a substantial number of K Street conservatives, due in large part to the sustained fence-mending he’s done with the lobbying community since his 2000 defeat. He has courted — heavily and consistently — individuals close to President George W. Bush and made amends with his one-time primary rival. McCain recently nabbed Terry Nelson, a consultant at Akerman Senterfitt who was the political director of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in 2004. Nelson will be a senior adviser to his political action committee, Straight Talk America, which McCain is using to raise money to retain GOP majorities in Congress and at the state level. “A lot of Bush folks have expressed interest in McCain, and my sense is that the McCain folks can’t go anywhere without people saying this to them,” says Trevor Potter, the lawyer for Straight Talk America and former legal counsel to the senator’s 2000 campaign. But former Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.), who was national co-chairman of McCain 2000, says McCain’s focus remains outside the Beltway. “I don’t think he does court K Street. He courts the great center of the American people.” Rudman’s view may need to be updated. It is clear that McCain is reaching out to lobbyists and that, on the flip side, K Street is reassessing John McCain. APPLYING POLITICAL LEVERAGE? Why the recent flood of support for a potential McCain candidacy? Some simply suggest that with no clear front-runner, Republicans are gravitating to the most formidable candidate for 2008. But others take a more cynical view, arguing that McCain is moving strongly to lock in potential supporters early so they won’t be free to back other challengers. And one longtime Republican lobbyist notes that getting crosswise with the powerful Arizona legislator now could cause a lot of heartburn in the long run. “I think he probably has a clear vision of what’s right and wrong, but I think that right and wrong doesn’t divide down to what telecom policy is,” says the lobbyist, who adds that McCain’s penchant for taking strident positions on a number of issues causes people to give soon and give large. “He hasn’t said he will do anything to you, but he enjoys making people sweat,” the lobbyist notes. McCain’s PAC is currently raising loads of money for the upcoming midterm congressional elections. As of late January, Straight Talk America had raked in close to $2 million for the 2006 election cycle, including contributions from individuals at Southwest Airlines, JP Morgan Chase & Co., DCI Group Government Affairs, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, American Defense International, and Microsoft Corp.’s government affairs office. Even some Hollywood funds have trickled in, notably a donation from actor Dennis Hopper. To help keep the cash flowing, McCain is also traipsing across the country, stumping for Republican candidates. Last week he attended a fund-raiser in Seattle for Washington state Senate hopeful Mike McGavick. Julie Sund, spokeswoman for McGavick, describes an enthusiastic 600-plus crowd at the event, which included a $4,200-per-person private photo reception. In all, the campaign raised about $300,000 at the affair, at which McCain spoke about government reforms and made a lengthy and highly critical analysis of earmarks, Sund says. ON THE DEFENSIVE McCain’s frequent attacks on earmarking are perhaps his biggest black mark with lobbyists. In particular, with the senator preparing to become chairman of the Armed Services Committee, members of the defense industry are on high alert, for there are few things more beloved by the defense industry than earmarks. “He’s obviously someone we’d like to see gone from Washington,” says one prominent Republican defense lobbyist. Another says he doesn’t know anyone in the defense industry who does business with McCain. “[McCain] has never done anything that the defense industry has liked, and they can’t be under any illusions that giving him money will change his politics,” says one political observer. Another obstacle for a McCain candidacy will be resistance among the social conservatives who formed the bedrock of Bush’s political base. The senator’s proposed lobbying reforms, which would require the disclosure of grass-roots fund raising and advertising, aren’t winning him any friends within the religious right. The groups are already forming coalitions to exclude such disclosures from lobby reform legislation. Additionally, McCain’s failure to forcefully advocate a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman makes his support among evangelicals tepid at best. In 2004 the Arizonan voted against the marriage amendment, saying at the time it was “antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans.” Gay marriage was not much of an issue in 2000, but with various court decisions and the legalization of same-sex unions in Massachusetts, a federal marriage amendment has become a top issue for social conservatives. And though Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, says that McCain has been good on some broadcast-decency issues, he notes, “There’s not an issue of greater importance right now than the issue of protecting marriage.” “I can’t see giving any support to any candidate [who is not taking a leadership role on this issue],” Perkins says. But 2008 is a political lifetime away, and if McCain is perceived to be the likely winner, K Street will back him. If he isn’t, they will still have to contend with his brusque style from a powerful Senate perch. Either way, John McCain will remain a formidable fact of life in political Washington, as former Disney lobbyist Mitch Rose recalls from one meeting he had with him. “I spoke to him on the issue of [cable television] a la carte, and I made the argument to him that the cable bundle is a lot like a newspaper. He looked at me and said, �That’s the weakest argument I’ve heard all day,’ ” Rose recalls. “ We walked out of there knowing exactly where we stood with the senator.”
Joe Crea can be contacted at [email protected].

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