Republican Sen. John McCain, reaching out to wary conservatives, delivered some bad news to the party's core constituency on Thursday, warning that the midterm elections will be hard for the GOP.

"We Republicans are going to have a tough race in 2006 because the country is not happy with us," McCain said. "We have a 25 percent approval rating in Congress."

The potential presidential candidate, who skipped Iowa in his 2000 bid for the White House, campaigned for Republican candidates and met privately to court conservatives critical to another pursuit of the GOP nomination.

During his Iowa appearances, McCain refused to change his stand on issues that rankle both the party's establishment and conservatives, including his opposition to ethanol subsidies and a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

McCain expressed support for President Bush's tough stance seeking sanctions against Iran for uranium enrichment and for keeping the option of military action.

"It's honesty," former state legislator Rosemary Thompson said of McCain. "You may not agree with him, but you know where he stands."

McCain complained that Republicans, who control Congress and the White House, are in danger of alienating even their base because they can't rein in spending, which he said is out of control.

"Many of our Republican supporters are not happy because we are spending money like a drunken sailor," said the former Navy man. "We risk not our base voting Democratic, but what I worry about is there being disillusions with us and (voters) staying home."

Last week, an AP-Ipsos poll found that just 30 percent of the public approves of the GOP-led Congress' job performance, and by a 49-33 percent margin, the public favors Democrats over Republicans when asked which party should control Congress.

That 16-point Democratic advantage is the largest the party has enjoyed in AP-Ipsos polling.

McCain faces some hurdles in Iowa, including his long-standing opposition to subsidies for ethanol production in a state that boosts the highest production of the renewable fuel in the nation.

"I was and remain opposed to subsidies," he said. He did concede that he would support some federal spending for research on alternative energy.

He reiterated his opposition to a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which the Senate is likely to vote on this summer. McCain said the only way he could support it is if the courts prohibit states from setting their own marriage laws.

"I intend to vote against it," he said. "I believe each state should decide."