McCain's Right Flank

Last fall, Jerry Falwell asked for an audience with an old foe who once called him one of "the agents of intolerance" in American politics. Falwell had been estranged from Arizona Sen. John McCain for almost six years, ever since the televangelist fought for George W. Bush in the bare-knuckle South Carolina primary that ended McCain's hopes of reaching the White House in 2000. Now, sitting in the Senate office of the GOP front runner for 2008, Falwell immediately brought up their past differences--"within 15 seconds of their sitting down," according to a McCain aide--and both men agreed it was time to move on. Falwell asked if McCain would support a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage; McCain said no because he believed marriage came under state control. (If the federal courts were to usurp the states' control on the issue, McCain said he would consider a constitutional amendment.) Then Falwell made another, simpler request: would McCain speak to his students at Liberty University? The senator agreed on the spot. The result was a vintage McCain speech on Saturday that called for civility in politics. "By all means, let us argue," he said. "But let us remember, we are not enemies."

Some conservatives may be appeased by the sight of McCain at an evangelical institution. But it's going to take more than a patriotic speech to convert many of McCain's enemies. Conservative activists are drawing up litmus tests for McCain, as they hope to extract concessions on the road to the primaries.

They have reason to worry. McCain continues to work closely with Democrats, including Ted Kennedy, on immigration reform. His signature issue, campaign-finance reform, continues to enrage libertarians and other critics of restricting the flow of cash into campaigns. Some pro-business groups hate his embrace of Kyoto-style efforts to slow global warming.

And social conservatives grumble that he's been AWOL in their war over judges, and compromised too much with Democrats over Senate rules. "Essentially, McCain is a progressive. He's a modern version of Teddy Roosevelt," says Fred Smith, who runs the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "You can forgive TR, because we hadn't tried it before. But we have now ... He's a candidate of the past running for the future."

McCain's aides say the conservative concerns are unfounded. He has an 80-plus percent approval rating from the National Tax Limitation Committee. He enjoys similarly high marks from the Christian Coalition. His legislative record is pro-life and pro-gun, his aides say. "Has he ever not voted for a conservative jurist? There may be one or two cases," says McCain's chief of staff, Mark Salter.

But if McCain is going to quiet his critics on the right, he may need to start with Grover Norquist, a wide-ranging activist whose office serves as Grand Central for a disparate collection of conservative pressure groups. Norquist has campaigned against McCain since the New Hampshire primary in 2000 in what looks like a personal feud. He derides McCain as a flip-flopper: a Reaganesque tax-cutter who opposed Bush's fiscal policy. "When people say McCain is raising a lot of money and has got high name ID, the answer is yes, he's going to need all that to overcome his other challenges," Norquist says.

Team McCain dismisses Norquist as being obsessed with the senator and worried that McCain's probe of the lobbying business could imperil Nor-quist's influence network, the so-called K Street Project, which he built with the likes of former House majority leader Tom DeLay and indicted superlobbyist Jack Abramoff. One senior McCain aide compared Norquist to a classic 1920s tale of a huckster-preacher. "The K Street Project will be moving," said the aide, who requested anonymity to avoid a public dispute with Norquist. "Elmer Gantry had to as well." (Norquist says McCain's aides have made empty threats about the Abramoff investigation, and that Abramoff "never tried to involve me in anything that was inappropriate.")

McCain has so much early momentum that he may not need Norquist. He ended his feud with Bush in 2004 and has since wooed a handful of Bush's fund-raisers and operatives, including Texas billionaires Charles and Sam Wyly, who spent more than $2.5 million attacking his environmental policies in 2000. In the most wide-open presidential race in a generation, the party is already feeling the pressure to coalesce around someone who can beat Hillary Clinton. One recent poll in South Carolina gave the senator a 26-point lead over his nearest GOP rival, Rudy Giuliani--who has his own problems with the right. With numbers like that, McCain might not feel inspired to find a new religion.