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McCain ‘All But Certain’ to Run Again

Despite swirling rumors to the contrary, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is set to run for a fourth term in 2004, according to several sources familiar with his thinking.

One McCain adviser said the Senator is “all but certain” to run again.

“I don’t sense he would like to walk away from the table when he still had a hand to play policy-wise,” the adviser explained.

“He hasn’t made a final decision, but he is inclined to run,” confirmed McCain spokesman Marshall Wittmann.

Brian Murray, executive director of the Arizona Republican Party, said McCain has been “planning fundraising events and putting more money into [his] federal account.”

But even those who know him best caution that McCain largely keeps his own counsel and could change his mind quickly.

Wittmann expects an official decision by this spring.

“He wants to give the decision long and hard thought,” Wittmann explained.

Divining the future political intentions of McCain has become a favorite parlor game among the media, which McCain courted so successfully during his unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.

For months, most seasoned political observers had expected McCain to bow out in 2004 after serving in the Senate for 18 years. A leading indicator was thought to be McCain’s decision to shut down his Straight Talk America political action committee in December.

The leadership political action committee had been McCain’s primary vehicle for raising and distributing funds to Congressional candidates, although he had significantly slowed his PAC activity during the past two years.

On Dec. 11, McCain sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission effectively shuttering the PAC.

“My own personal view is that it is inappropriate for federal candidates actively seeking election or re-election to be soliciting funds for other federal political committees, which they control directly or indirectly,” McCain wrote.

McCain was the lead sponsor of the campaign finance reform measure passed by both houses in the 107th Congress that severely curtailed the long-held fundraising practices of both candidates and campaign committees.

An appeal to the law is currently being heard in the Supreme Court.

Wittmann said McCain’s decision to close the PAC was solely the result of his conviction that “you shouldn’t have a re-election committee and a leadership PAC at the same time,” and was not meant to signal McCain’s imminent departure from the political playing field.

With Straight Talk America now dissolved, McCain must raise all of his funds through his federal campaign committee.

Through June 30, however, McCain had a meager $36 remaining in that account after raising just $75,000 in the election cycle to date. His cash-on-hand total is by far the lowest of any of the 34 Senators up for re-election in 2004. Year-end fundraising figures will be released Jan. 31.

McCain loyalists believe the low fundraising totals have been misunderstood.

“A lot of people misinterpreted his lack of interest in fundraising and the normal activity prior to being in cycle for a lack of interest in serving again,” said one McCain strategist.

McCain’s associates also stress that the Senator raised better than $45 million in his presidential primary campaign against then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

In his last re-election race, McCain spent $2.5 million to his opponent’s $371,000 while winning 69 percent of the vote.

“There are less than five Senators with a national following,” said a McCain adviser. “If need be he and his organization can raise as much money as he needs.”

Wittmann said that McCain has yet to send out any direct-mail fundraising solicitations and will not until he officially announces his candidacy.

It remains unclear whether the maverick McCain will draw a serious primary or general-election challenge. Over the past two years he has regularly irked his own party by voting against major Republican initiatives such as President Bush’s tax cut — he was one of only two Republicans to do so.

McCain has already voiced reservations about Bush’s new economic stimulus plan.

At this point, however, it seems unlikely that a fellow Republican will challenge McCain.

“Nobody is preparing,” said Murray, the party’s executive director.

The three Republican candidates considered most likely to run if the seat came open — Reps. Jeff Flake, John Shadegg and J.D. Hayworth — all pledged their support for McCain in interviews over the past few days.

Of the three, Flake is considered the most likely to embark on a primary challenge.

Democrats believe their best chance to win the seat is if one of the three enters the GOP primary and damages or defeats McCain.

“McCain probably has more support from Democrats and Independents than he does from Republicans in Arizona,” said one Arizona Democrat, who pointed out that the state holds open primaries, which allow any voter to participate in the GOP primary.

“We need to have someone with good name recognition and good money to be there in a holding pattern in case [McCain] gets knocked off or badly damaged in a primary,” the source added.

McCain’s decision to run makes it much less likely that Democrats will seriously contend for the Grand Canyon State Senate seat, however.

Already Democrats’ strongest potential candidate has ruled out a bid. Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Jim Pederson will run for re-election to that post rather than pursue a Senate race, according to state party Political Director Paul Hegarty.

Pederson, a developer who is personally wealthy, gave $2.4 million out of his own pocket to help fund the state party apparatus in the 2002 election. Pederson’s generosity helped Democrats stay financially competitive and contributed to the gubernatorial victory of state Attorney General Janet Napolitano, who was sworn in this week.

Pederson is expected to focus on Democrats winning the state in the presidential race as well as capturing the new 1st district seat now held by Rep. Rick Renzi (R).

Other Democrats being mentioned for the Senate race are 2002 1st Congressional district candidate Fred Duval, former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson and former Republican state Attorney General Grant Woods, who is contemplating a party switch.

Woods is a close friend of McCain, however, and would not run against him, Democratic sources said.

“Everything is on hold until McCain’s decision,” Duval said. “I am not a prospective candidate if McCain is a candidate for re-election.”

Duval called McCain a friend who “provides the country some unusual leadership.”

In the unlikely event McCain changes his mind about the race, all three GOP Congressmen said they would consider running.

“[Shadegg] is focused on representing the people of his district but if the opportunity to represent the entire state arose, it is something he would look at,” said spokesman John Pappas.

Flake spokesman Matt Specht said the Congressman would be “interested” in an open-seat Senate bid.

Joe Eule, chief of staff to Hayworth, went as far as to predict that his boss would be the frontrunner in any open-seat scenario.

“[Hayworth] would have an advantage,” said Eule, pointing out that Hayworth represented more than 1 million people in the old 6th district and that his new 5th district has only 150,000 holdovers from the old seat.

“We represent a decent proportion of the people of Arizona,” Eule said.

Regardless of who enters the race, a McCain adviser said the Senator will be “ready for a challenge from the right or the left.”

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