McCain mulling PAC with future White House bid in mind

By Ron Fournier, Associated Press, 03/15/00

WASHINGTON -- John McCain's advisers are preparing to establish a political action committee that would allow the failed Republican presidential contender to campaign for other candidates this year and lay the groundwork for his own future, which could include another White House race.

McCain is expected to give the final go-ahead on the project when he returns to work next week, the advisers said Wednesday, speaking only on condition of anonymity.

They also said the Arizona senator is still in no hurry to endorse George W. Bush.

The two-term Texas governor, who has clinched the GOP nomination, is eager to mend fences with McCain and forge an alliance that could help attract independents and Democrats to the GOP ticket in the fall. The Arizonan had enormous success with voters who normally don't vote in GOP primaries, but he couldn't overcome Bush's stranglehold over party regulars and social conservatives.

McCain is now mulling his next step, as he prepares to return to the Senate on Monday.

Advisers say the most likely option is the formation of a political action committee that would accept limited, regulated "hard money" donations -- as opposed to the more freewheeling "soft money" contributions that McCain is trying to ban.

The committee, already dubbed "Straight Talk America," would pay for McCain's expenses, which aides expect to include:

- A speaking tour that would take him to college campuses and other sites to promote campaign finance reform.

- Campaign stops for Republican candidates in congressional and statewide races. McCain has received dozens of requests from candidates since he abandoned the presidential race last week, aides say.

- Political activities at the Republican National Convention this summer. Advisers are recommending that McCain fight any attempt by Bush to strip him of his delegates, and that he use his influence to shape the GOP platform. They realize that Bush's political base won't allow any extensive overhaul, but they are hoping an accommodation on McCain's signature campaign-finance issue will be part of any reconciliation between the two rivals.

The unspoken purpose of the PAC-financed activities is to retain McCain's political viability in case Bush loses in 2000 and McCain, 63, is positioned as the early front-runner for 2004, advisers say.

McCain's advisers are modeling the effort after Ronald Reagan, who lost the Republican nomination to President Ford in 1976 and immediately set up a political operation to establish himself as the front-runner in 1980. Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, and Reagan beat Carter in the next election.

Maintaining his visibility also might pave the way for McCain to join Bush's ticket, but the senator and his staff insist he would not be a vice presidential candidate. There is a long history of politicians changing their minds on that subject.

Forming a PAC "is a very smart idea," said GOP consultant Scott Reed, who ran Dole's 1996 campaign. "John McCain clearly is a national figure with tens of thousands of supporters and it would be a disappointment for him not to continue his dialogue with reform-minded backers."

"But I don't look at it as positioning for four years from now. I look at it as the next step, for him to stay active in 2000," Reed said. "I don't think you can look at 2004 right now. I think it's a stretch to say he's laying the groundwork."

McCain is said to still be angry at Bush for questioning his commitment to breast cancer research in campaign ads -- and at the governor's organization for spreading highly personal rumors and charges during the South Carolina campaign.

But advisers say McCain would eventually be willing to help Bush's presidential campaign if the nominee and his staff show respect for McCain and his campaign-finance cause. "We want some movement on the issue, though we know there can't be a lot, and we want some sincerity behind it," said one senior adviser.

McCain's political team was incensed by a quote attributed to Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes, who dismissed suggestions that Bush had negotiated with McCain. "Negotiations? Governor Bush won," she said.

Bush talked briefly by telephone with McCain shortly after the senator left the race, but only to congratulate the senator on a well-run campaign. McCain's top political aide, John Weaver, talked with Bush campaign manager Joe Allbaugh on Monday to open up a line of communications.

McCain's staff says an endorsement, if it comes, would be made after a long process in which the two rivals bury their personal animosities and the two staffs determine how best to reach McCain's voters. A quick endorsement would be viewed as a sham by McCain's voters, one adviser said, while an alliance announced during the convention season would maximize exposure for both Bush and McCain.

McCain's campaign ended with just enough money in the bank to cover the cost of shutting the operation down, aides said.