WASHINGTON – Sen. John McCain envisions a different direction for the GOP after last week's devastating defeats — and in laying it out, the Republican is sending an implicit message that he should be the next leader.
"We departed rather tragically from our conservative principles," McCain lamented recently, offering his take on why the GOP fell from power in Congress. He urged a return to what he called the foundation of the Republican Party — restrained spending, smaller government, lower taxes, a strong national defense and family values.
Fifteen months before the first 2008 presidential nominating contests, McCain is positioning himself as the Republican standard-bearer while President Bush takes on lame-duck status and dispirited party faithful search for a road to recovery. The election cycle was sobering, with GOP candidates losing at all levels of government.
The four-term Arizona senator will deliver back-to-back speeches Thursday to organizations considered conservative cornerstones of the Republican Party — the Federalist Society and GOPAC. He will discuss the current and future state of the GOP.
"Our party's licking its wounds but also looking for a direction. And it's smart for any political leader to stand up and say here's how we move forward," said David Carney, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire. "The Republican activists will listen."
McCain is taking advantage of the postelection period to outline a vision for the party much like Ronald Reagan did after the Republican defeat in the 1976 presidential election — and, perhaps, preview the central theme of a presidential campaign.
"Republicans got their teeth kicked in all over the country," said Katon Dawson, South Carolina's party chairman. "Now, there's a window for all people with presidential aspirations to, in political terms, catch the high ground."
As expected, McCain will formally launch a presidential exploratory committee Thursday by filing paperwork with the Federal Election Commission that will allow him to raise money and travel the country while weighing a bid. The committee's Web site — www.exploremccain.com — went online a day earlier, and McCain's GOPAC speech will be broadcast on the site.
Despite all the action, McCain says he will wait until after the Christmas holiday to decide whether to make a second bid for the White House. He lost to Bush in a contentious race in 2000, when the senator was the underdog and bypassed the revered Iowa caucuses to focus on independent-friendly New Hampshire.
This time, McCain no doubt will compete in Iowa, given that he is widely considered the one to beat in a crowded field of potential candidates. His front-runner status is due in part to the Republican Party's history of making the runner-up in the previous presidential election the next nominee.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has filed paperwork to test the waters for the GOP nomination, and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California also has announced his intention to run. On Wednesday, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson said he intends to explore a possible candidacy.
McCain's other would-be 2008 Republican rivals include Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Over the past year, McCain has repeatedly demurred on questions about his political future and said he was focused entirely on helping Republicans get elected across the country.
He spent 2006 sowing goodwill within the GOP ranks, making 346 campaign appearances, raising $10.5 million for candidates and donating another nearly $1.5 million to their races. He directed most of his donations in the final month of the campaign to races in Iowa and New Hampshire.
In the meantime, his aides were busy building grass-roots organizations and lining up support in crucial states, including Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, with local officials affiliating themselves with his political action committee — Straight Talk America.
At the national level, McCain beefed up his political operation by bringing on one-time Bush advisers to work alongside his own cadre of longtime loyalists.
Politically, he continued to build upon his reputation from 2000 as an independent in the party while also seeking to repair splinters with the conservative wing still angry over some of his positions.
He has been a forceful defender of Bush's Iraq policy, but also has put his own stamp on how the administration should handle the conflict. He has called for more troops to stabilize the country, placing him at odds with much of the country and to the right of many of his potential GOP rivals.
"Basically you're advocating the status quo here today which I think the American people in the last election said that is not an acceptable condition for the American people," McCain told Gen. John Abizaid at a congressional hearing Wednesday. "I regret deeply that you seem to think that the status quo and the rate of progress we're making is acceptable. I think most Americans do not."
Many fiscal and social conservatives alike remain skeptical about McCain, but the Republicans' losses in the last election actually could give him an opportunity to strengthen his standing with that crucial GOP base.
"The conservative folks are interested in leadership after last week," said Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist in Alexandria, Va. "He could use the liberal Democratic Congress as a foil in some ways to appease the conservatives and show leadership."