By THOMAS BEAUMONT
The Des Moines Register
CEDAR FALLS, Iowa – Republican John McCain says he’s the same presidential candidate he was seven years ago.
“I’m still the same candidate I was – little bit older, but still the same candidate,” McCain said in Des Moines Friday during his three-day Iowa campaign swing.
But the candidate who in his 2000 campaign badgered George W. Bush, pronounced government spending the top White House priority and skipped the Iowa caucuses has rethought all three positions.
Capping a swing through Iowa Friday where his 2008 campaign is in full gear, McCain embraced President Bush’s tax, immigration and Iraq war plans, and called the war on terrorism the country’s defining issue.
Some Iowa Republicans are attracted to McCain for positions that he wasn’t talking as much about in 2000, such as foreign policy.
“Some of the things he’s passionate about are important to our nation,” said undecided Cedar Falls Republican Mary Keys. “I believe it’s really important – his stand on national security. That’s very important to me.”
McCain’s standard speech still recounts his record as a Navy pilot shot down in Vietnam and five years in a North Vietnamese prison. But now he ties it to his argument that he is best able to confront the terrorist threat the United States faces.
“I’ve seen the face of evil and I know the challenge we face, which is overwhelming and transcendent, which is this radical Islamic extremism,” McCain told about 500 Republican activists at a forum in Cedar Falls.
McCain this week tried to project in Iowa the maverick image that marked his campaign in 2000, when he rode around New Hampshire in a bus nicknamed “Straight Talk Express.”
The bus hit the highway in Iowa for the first time this week, carrying a candidate who is not only older than when it first embarked, but tied closely to President Bush. McCain has enlisted the support of top Bush campaign aides, including his national campaign manager Terry Nelson.
McCain, who once opposed ethanol, now says he supports the corn-based fuel-additive as a means to reduce U.S. dependency on imported petroleum.
He has incorporated into his Iowa stump speech a standard joke that he drinks a glass of ethanol every day, although he maintains his opposition to the federal subsidy for ethanol.
McCain acknowledged in a Des Moines Register interview that he is trying to conjure the spirit of his 2000 campaign, albeit under very different national and international circumstances.
“A lot of the focus of the 2000 campaign was understandably about the economy. We were a nation at peace,” McCain said. “So that part has changed, but what hasn’t changed is any of my principles, any of my positions, with the exception of ethanol, nor my mode of operation.”
Some Republican leaders in Iowa, where the caucuses are scheduled to launch the 2008 nominating process, say the differences between McCain’s 2000 and 2008 campaigns are a turnoff.
Dickinson County GOP vice chairman Mike Koenecke said they make him trust McCain less.
“I have some distrust of McCain. He’s always presenting himself as a maverick, and now he’s trying to move to the right,” said Koenecke. “I personally don’t have a lot of support for him. He’s not been a party unifier but a party divider.”
McCain said, should he be elected, his willingness to collaborate with Democrats, as he has done in the Senate on judicial nominations, would be an asset in dealing with a Congress he described as chronically locked in partisan bitterness. His first act, he said Friday, will be to reach out to Democrats.
“Shouldn’t we as Republicans and Democrats for the good of the nation sit down and stop this constant fighting in the Congress of the United States?” he told the group in Cedar Falls, prompting an eruption of applause.
As enthusiastic as the immediate response was to McCain’s call for unity, doubt lingered in the audience.
“How in your mind do you go about doing that without losing your own principles?” a woman asked McCain. “I get really nervous.”
‘Straight talker’ regrets ‘tar baby’ remark
The Associated Press
CEDAR FALLS, Iowa – Republican presidential candidate John McCain used the term “tar baby,” which is sometimes associated with racist connotations, during a campaign stop in northern Iowa Friday and immediately expressed regret.
The Arizona senator was answering a question during a Cedar Falls forum in front of 500 Black Hawk County Republicans when he used the same words that drew criticism last year when uttered by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and White House spokesman Tony Snow.
“For me to stand here before all these people and say I’m going to declare divorces invalid because someone feels they weren’t treated fairly in court, we are getting into a tar baby of enormous proportions,” McCain said, explaining his position on the federal government’s role parental rights in custody cases.
McCain, who prides himself on his style of “straight talk,” told reporters afterward he instantly regretted using the term.
“I don’t think I should have used that word and I was wrong to do so,” he said.