Is the Republican senator Bush’s heir apparent?

The Republican race to succeed George Bush is on, said John Dickerson in Last weekend, some of the GOP's brightest talent could be found preening before delegates from 36 states at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis. Each candidate was very visibly making his case to be the party's nominee in 2008. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee was predictably 'œanesthetic.' Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was charming enough, in a 'œfolksy' kind of way. The usually polished Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts tried to establish his grass-roots bona fides by singing an excruciating rendition of 'œDavy Crockett.' But in the end, said Walter Shapiro in, Sen. John McCain was by far the most dominant personality. The only 'œface card in the Republican deck,' McCain showed why he's got 'œthe best chance' to beat Hillary Clinton'”or anyone the Democrats wind up nominating'”in '08.

McCain positioned himself masterfully, said Dick Polman in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Conservative Republicans have long distrusted the 'œrenegade' McCain for his tendency to break party ranks. After a bitter primary fight with Bush in 2000, McCain voted against Bush's tax cuts, and championed campaign-finance reform and a ban on torture. He has consistently distanced himself from the social conservatives who make up Bush's base. But the McCain who showed up in Memphis was a different guy'”a party loyalist. The Arizona senator urged fellow Republicans to stand behind the embattled Bush and his policies, including on the Iraq war. 'œWe must keep our presidential ambitions a distant second to standing with the president,' McCain told the crowd. Without directly criticizing Bush, he also snuck in a plug for returning the party to its philosophy of fiscal restraint and balanced budgets. The battle for the nomination remains wide open, said Dan Balz in The Washington Post, but McCain already has the inside track. 'œNo other candidate could claim to offer continuity and change almost simultaneously.'

Whom does McCain think he's fooling? asked James Pinkerton in Newsday. The mainstream media, as usual, loved his act, but it didn't impress Republican activists who'll vote in the primaries two years hence. In a straw poll of delegates to the Memphis conference, he finished a distant fifth, with just 4.6 percent of the vote. That's because social conservatives still don't trust him on issues like abortion and gay marriage, and other conservatives think he spends too much time posturing for liberal newspaper editorial boards. 'œThe activists, who actually pick the nominee, don't seem to like him very much.' And despite his 'œmoderate' reputation, said Paul Krugman in The New York Times, McCain won't win many Democratic votes in a general election. His voting record reveals him to be the Senate's third most conservative member, and to appease the Christian right, he recently endorsed South Dakota's 'œextremist, new anti-abortion law.' McCain fancies himself a straight shooter. Actually, he's a rank opportunist.

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Daniel Casse

Los Angeles Times

Ruth Marcus

The Washington Post

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