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McCain considers options as Daschle pays a visit

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As he prepared to play host to the Senate's Democratic leader at his Arizona ranch on Saturday, Republican Sen. John McCain was considering a third-party run for president in 2004, advisers said.

The Washington Post reported the advisers said McCain was not on the verge of such a move, but was "open to all possibilities."

"I would say it's 50-50 right now," Hudson Institute scholar Marshal Wittman, a McCain loyalist, told the newspaper. "It's an open question right down the middle."

Meanwhile, the visit of South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle, who will become Senate majority leader when the Senate reconvenes on Tuesday, and his wife to McCain's ranch near Sedona has launched new speculation that the Arizonan is considering departing the GOP for 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 split Senate.

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

"The senator invited the Daschles and [former White House domestic policy adviser] Bruce Reed to come to the cabin five months ago. They accepted about one month ago," John Weaver, a political adviser to McCain, told CNN. "The senator uses his cabin in spring and summer to entertain. On the agenda -- ribs and hiking."

"Bipartisan friendships are not as rare in Washington as some would believe," said a statement released by McCain's office. "No one should read anything more into this. Sen. McCain and Sen. Daschle have known each other since 1983."

Daschle is on a Western swing that has also 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."

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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