By Jason Szep - analysis
TOLEDO, Ohio (Reuters) - A report of questionable ties between U.S. Republican presidential hopeful John McCain and a woman lobbyist on Thursday may ironically help him in one of his biggest struggles -- winning over conservative critics.
The New York Times report could boost his standing with conservatives, an important and vociferous group who reject McCain’s sometimes moderate policies but regard the newspaper as an enemy of the Republican Party.
Some of the Arizona senator’s most ardent conservative critics, including Sean Hannity of Fox, rallied to him after the Times report, taking issue with its sourcing and veracity.
Some, like talk show host Rush Limbaugh and commentator Laura Ingraham, while hardly softening toward McCain, made the issue the newspaper’s behavior, not that of the senator.
“This is what you get when you walk across the aisle and try to make these people your friends. I‘m not surprised in the least that the NYT would try to take out John McCain,” Limbaugh said.
The incident came at a crucial time for McCain, who has virtually sealed the party’s nomination in the lengthy state-by-state selection process to pick a candidate for the November election.
Surveys of voters in Wisconsin where McCain enjoyed a big victory on Tuesday showed he still had trouble with voters who consider themselves “very conservative” -- a stubborn problem for him fueled by right-wing radio and TV.
Many of those conservatives in Wisconsin opted for Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher with virtually no chance of winning. McCain did well with moderates and those who say they are only “somewhat conservative.”
His big challenge has been to win over the Republican Party’s base, which was instrumental in turning out voters for President George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, while continuing to attract moderate Republicans.
The newspaper quoted anonymous sources on a relationship McCain had with a lobbyist during his first presidential run in 2000 and cited initiatives he appeared to take to advance her causes, which would conflict with his high ethical stances.
The 71-year-old Vietnam war hero denounced the piece as untrue and denied improper involvement with the lobbyist whom he called his “friend.”
“These types of stories can start to puncture the image that some people have of John McCain of being so independent, someone outside of the system,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of politics at Princeton University.
Many conservatives still express dismay at McCain’s views on certain issues. He has criticized harsh treatment of captured terrorism suspects, advocated campaign finance reform, urged steps to counter climate change and initially voted against Bush’s tax cuts.
“We’ve got real policy differences with McCain,” said Richard Viguerie, a veteran conservative activist and author. “The ball is clearly in his court. He has the next move. I don’t see that he has reached out.”
Viguerie said the moderates and “liberal Republicans” McCain attracts make up just a third of the total Republican vote. Uniting all Republicans for the November 4 election will require big overtures from McCain, he said.
He said McCain should vow to make judicial appointments, including Supreme Court nominations, with guidance from the Federalist Society, a conservative lawyers’ group whose members have taken many high-ranking posts in the Bush administration.
McCain’s pick for a vice presidential running mate could either energize conservatives or harden opposition, he added. McCain has said he hasn’t started the process yet.
“Who he picks as a running mate is key. If he fails that test, there’s no hope. Conservatives will probably pick up their speed in terms of opposition to him,” Viguerie said.
McCain, who would be the oldest person to win a first presidential term, acknowledges the challenge to win the full embrace of all conservatives. But his aides say he won’t pander by shifting his stances just to allay his critics.
Mark McKinnon, a McCain adviser who oversaw advertising for Bush’s campaigns in 2000 and 2004, said Republicans were rallying behind McCain in anticipation of a tight election fight. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois are vying for the Democratic nomination.
McKinnon said internal polls show McCain consistently capturing 80 percent of Republican votes nationally. “In reality these criticisms are coming from just a handful of people with some loud microphones,” he said.
Editing by David Storey