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McCain denies party switch and presidential run

Senate watchers have speculated that Daschle, left, is trying to coax McCain to switch to the Democratic Party  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Saturday he had no intentions of abandoning the Republican Party or of launching a presidential bid in 2004.

Responding to a newspaper report that had him considering a third party run at the White House, McCain said he hoped his statement would "put an end to further speculation on the subject."

"I have not instructed nor encouraged any of my advisers to begin planning for a presidential run in 2004," McCain said in a written statement. "I have not discussed running for president with anyone. As I have said, I have no intention of running for president, nor do I have any intention of, or cause to, leave the Republican Party."

The Washington Post article, citing McCain loyalists who had lunch together last week and discussed the idea of a McCain run as an independent, came as the senator was playing host to South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle and his wife at McCain's ranch near Sedona, Arizona.

Despite the rumors, Arizona Sen. John McCain says he is not switching parties. CNN's John King reports (June 2)

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The visit prompted speculation that Daschle, who will become Senate majority leader when the Senate reconvenes Tuesday, was trying to persuade McCain to jump to the Democrats.

Daschle ascended to the Senate's top spot when Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords' left the Republican Party to become an independent, tipping the balance to the Democrats in the evenly divided Senate.

McCain's aides said the visit was strictly social and had been planned well before Jeffords' move.

Daschle is on a Western swing that has included a fund-raiser for Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and events in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Asked if Daschle will talk to McCain about leaving the GOP, Ranit Schmeltzer, Daschle's press secretary, told CNN, "I won't speculate about what they're going to talk about. ... Sen. Daschle is interested in talking to any Republican interested in becoming a Democrat."

Speculation over lunch

Four advisers and friends of the Senator had lunch last Thursday and discussed the idea of McCain leaving the GOP and running as an independent candidate for President, according to two of those at the meeting.

"Did it come up? Sure," said John Weaver, a longtime McCain adviser. "Some people want him to do it, but as far as we know it is not an option on the table."

Weaver spoke with the senator at his ranch in Arizona early Saturday. "He told me to 'knock that thing down,'" referring to the Washington Post article, Weaver said.

"I believe that McCain thinks about it a little bit," said Weekly Standard Editor, William Kristol, who also attended the lunch. "But he's been very discreet. All the talk has been among aides and friends."

McCain's chief of staff, Mark Salter, acknowledged that those around McCain may be talking about the future but said the senator is not involved in those conversations.

Salter said the senator "has never at any time indicated anything to suggest that he's even thinking of running or running as a third party candidate."

"McCain has discussed, winked at, encouraged in any way -- no one," Salter said emphatically. "He has not discussed this with his advisers. He hasn't even discussed it with his family. Nor has he directed anyone to start planning a third party run."

McCain voted against tax cut bill

McCain told CNN's Dana Bash on May 25 he was not going to switch to the Democratic Party and he had no immediate plans to switch to being an independent. He said even if he were to become an independent, he would not caucus with the Democrats because it would defeat the purpose of being an independent.

But McCain's advisers point to staunch differences between the senator's positions and those of President Bush -- who defeated McCain in the 2000 Republican primaries -- and the Republican-controlled House on several key issues, particularly campaign finance reform.

Additionally, McCain has split from conservative Republicans in the past to join Democrats -- and even sponsor legislation -- on such issues as patients' rights, reducing the number of tax breaks that benefit only wealthier people and gun control. McCain was one of two Republicans who voted against Bush's $1.35 billion tax cut bill that Congress passed on May 26.

Such moves have targeted him for some sharp criticism from within his own party.

"People are upset with McCain bashing President Bush," Arizona State Sen. Scott Bundgaard, a Republican from Glendale, told The Arizona Republic. "He's more concerned about grabbing headlines than party unity."

But others say McCain's positions are the same ones that have kept him in the Senate since 1985 and in the House for two terms before that.

"I was on his staff in the early '80s when he was a congressman and he worked even then with members of the opposing party," Doug Cole, a lobbyist and one-time spokesman for recent Arizona Gov. Fife Symington, told the Arizona Daily Star.

Nathan Sproul, Arizona Republican Party executive director, Sproul told The Arizona Republic that while calls against the senator rose sharply after the tax bill vote, he had no indication McCain was planning to bolt the party.

• Senator John McCain
• Senator Tom Daschle

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