"Are folks aware of just how meticulously (Sen. John) McCain and his team are going about building their '08 campaign? There's probably not a GOP activist in South Carolina who hasn't been contacted at least once by someone supportive of McCain's candidacy. ... As long as he continues to poll well against Hillary, and as long as the Republicans look as if they could lose power at a moment's notice, McCain should be able to create the air of inevitability that Bush created in 2000.'"
- Hotline editor Chuck Todd in National Journal
Officially, he is not yet running and won't make up his mind until after the fall elections, but in an interview in his Senate office Thursday, McCain sounds as if an announcement of his candidacy is merely a formality.
He calls his 2000 campaign "the most exhilarating period of my life." He repeats the phrase for emphasis.
McCain has sometimes publicly disagreed with President Bush on certain issues, but about the president's handling of the war on terror since the Sept. 11 attacks, McCain offered generous praise: "The war on terror is what re-elected President Bush. We were able to frame the debate in that (2004) campaign ... that President Bush was by far the most qualified guy. By the way, I believe that to this day with my heart and soul."
What may attract Republicans who believe Bush is not a true conservative is McCain's willingness to oppose the president on more spending and bigger government, along with McCain's language on the consequences of illegal immigration.
During our interview, McCain told me: "The director of the FBI has stated 'there are more people from countries of interest coming across our border.' So there is no doubt the threat (from infiltration of radical Muslims) has increased. That's why immigration reform - of which border enforcement is a part - must be a prime issue."
McCain believes the issue of a United Arab Emirates company managing U.S. ports, while important, should not be our highest priority: "If something were to happen at a U.S. port, it isn't the port that will be the problem, but the port where (the cargo) originated, or where it passes through. I believe the war in Iraq is of transcendent importance. Same with Iranian nuclear weapons. So is continued infiltration of al-Qaida back into Afghanistan."
McCain says that while he has a good handle on foreign policy, he intends to learn more on domestic issues, including economics, tax policy and health care: "I'm going to have to be smarter on some issues than I am now."
He's confident his "25-year record on pro-life" will satisfy social conservatives. About culture: "I've done some terrible things in my life, so I try not to be a judge, but it seems to me there is a poison in our culture that we have to address. Maybe it's through the bully pulpit, but we can't pass a bunch of laws to control it all."
McCain is generous about two of his potential rivals for the GOP nomination. About Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, he says, "(He) is a far more decent person than John McCain is." Virginia Sen. George Allen has "a very good record and is a very attractive guy." McCain says it will be "very tough" to win the Republican nomination, and that "no one should be coronated."
McCain thinks Sen. Hillary Clinton will be the 2008 Democratic nominee, "and anyone who underestimates her would do so at great risk." Noting that he once ran against a woman for the Senate, McCain says of running against women, "You'd better be respectful. That's the key. If you act disrespectful, it's devastating." He believes a woman will one day be president. He just hopes it isn't in 2008 and that it isn't Hillary Clinton, whom he clearly believes he can beat.
McCain faults the Federal Election Commission for not outlawing the "527" committees that funneled millions into recent campaigns through a loophole in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. He worries that millions of dollars in contributions to 527s from people such as liberal activist George Soros could buy the election for Democrats in several close 2006 races. Invoking Soros could also win him approval among certain conservatives who have been suspicious of McCain in the past.
McCain is doing his homework and laying the groundwork for an election run. Whether he actually runs depends on shifting political winds over which he has minimal control.
Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist and a host on Fox News Channel. Readers may leave e-mail at www.calthomas.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Thursday.