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Schneider: Is McCain trying to have it both ways?

By Bill Schneider
CNN Senior Political Analyst
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sen. John McCain and the conservatives -- it's been an on-again, off-again affair.

It wasn't so much what the Arizona Republican said when he announced his candidacy for president of the United States on Wednesday night, it's where he said it -- on "Late Show with David Letterman.''

McCain seemed to be trying to say, "I'm still a maverick. Just like in 2000." (Watch McCain announce his candidacy on Letterman Video)

But is he? McCain has repaired his relationship with President Bush. He's signed on key Bush campaign staffers. He's raising money from Bush supporters. He's made up with leaders of the religious right he once called "agents of intolerance."

And he's showcasing his conservative credentials. During a February meeting in Orlando of the National Religious Broadcasters, McCain said, "I have always been in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade."

Then why Letterman? And why is he the only major Republican candidate to reject an invitation to speak to CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, this week in Washington?

Conservative activists feel dissed.

"This is saying: these 6,000 people, and whatever they represent, you know, you're really not somebody that I have to pay attention to," said David Keene of the American Conservative Union.

You can find anti-McCain literature at the CPAC conference, including a dossier detailing McCain's positions called, "He's No Ronald Reagan."

"McCain is in a difficult position of being the only serious candidate for the Republican nomination who's not here, at a convention that Reagan went to every single year," said Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.

McCain may be trying to have it both ways -- mending fences with conservatives while not getting too close to them. After all, President Bush and the Iraq war are not popular right now.

But here's a surprise: you hear a lot of criticism of President Bush and the Iraq war among conservative activists.

"There's a split in the movement, as there is in the American public, as to what should be our proper position vis--vis the Iraq war," Keene said.

So is any 2008 candidate making headway with conservatives? Here's another surprise -- Rudy Giuliani. We asked, who would get a warmer reception from these conservative activists? (Watch analysis of why Giuliani surging in the polls Video)

"Probably Giuliani because McCain has had a lot of run-ins with the right in recent years," Keene said. "Giuliani just hasn't been a part of it, and, also, Giuliani is the hot new guy on the scene.''

Giuliani, the pro-choice, pro-gay rights former New York City mayor? Yes, him.

"He's not as liberal on issues as people assumed because he's from New York, and as people learn where he is on judges, where he is on some of these other issues, people are going, 'oh, oh, that's not so bad,' " said Norquist, a prominent conservative activist.

Even though McCain has moved closer to Bush to shore up his mainstream Republican support, he hasn't scored many new points with conservatives.

Asked to describe the mood of conservatives right now, Keene said, "They're mad at the [Republican] Party. They're mad at the leadership. They're mad at the White House.''

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, tries to sway primary voters in Iowa to his camp.



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