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McCain Taps House Team

Sen. John McCain (R) will unveil the members of his House whip team today, as the Arizonan seeks to jump-start his effort to build support for his 2008 presidential bid in a chamber where he has never been terribly popular with his fellow Republicans.

GOP Reps. Spencer Bachus (Ala.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Dan Lungren (Calif.), John Shimkus (Ill.), John Shadegg (Ariz.) and Fred Upton (Mich.) will serve as McCain’s emissaries in the House, with additions to the team expected to be announced later.

“We are incredibly fortunate to have the support of such distinguished officials,” said McCain campaign spokesman Danny Diaz. “These Congressmen will play a lead role in growing the base of support Sen. McCain already enjoys in the U.S. House.”

The announcement of McCain’s six-man whip team comes as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, one of his top rivals for the GOP nod in 2008, has been aggressively courting support from House Members.

Romney is scheduled to address the Republican Study Committee’s retreat in Baltimore on Friday. McCain will not attend the retreat for House conservatives, although his campaign said that former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) will be speaking on his behalf.

McCain has long had a prickly relationship with Republican House Members over the course of his two decades in the Senate.

At times he has riled conservatives with his willingness to buck the Republican establishment, and his efforts to limit pork barrel spending also have drawn the ire of appropriators and other Members seeking to fund pet projects back home.

Bachus, who is the ranking member on the Financial Services panel and also an RSC member, conceded that McCain has ruffled feathers over the years. But he believes McCain has “offended for all the right reasons” and said the fact that the Senator doesn’t seem to be out to win a popularity contest is what ultimately drew him to support his presidential bid.

“He’s not afraid of anybody,” Bachus said, adding that it is evident that McCain won’t be managed. “I don’t want somebody who can be manipulated and used.”

He added: “I think that John McCain is a courageous person. And I think that the president of the United States in the next decade is going to have to be courageous.”

Lungren conceded that he had differences with McCain on issues such as reforming the campaign finance system and immigration policy.

But he said that McCain’s record of fiscal conservatism trumped their disagreements over other policies and that he chose to support him because “on the big issues he’s right.”

“On the [Iraq] War, he’s not a guy who’s sitting there with his finger in the wind,” Lungren said, referring to McCain’s support for the Bush administration’s plan to increase the number of troops in Iraq.

And as for those who might mistake McCain’s maverick reputation for an across-the-board moderate ideology, Lungren had this warning: “I think a lot of liberals are going to be pretty surprised.”

From a political standpoint, Lungren said he believes McCain is the type of candidate who could make California competitive in the 2008 general election.

“I think he puts my state in play,” Lungren said.

Republican candidates have all but written off the left-leaning state in recent presidential elections. The last time California was considered in play in a presidential election was 1988, when then-Vice President George H.W. Bush carried the state with 51 percent of the vote.

Both McCain and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) share a penchant for government reform and at least two operatives from Schwarzenegger’s 2006 re-election bid have migrated to McCain’s presidential effort: Senior Adviser Steve Schmidt and Deputy Director of Strategy Sarah Simmons.

California-based media consultant Fred Davis, who worked on Schwarzenegger’s re-election, signed on to work for McCain in 2008.

Lungren, a former California attorney general, served with McCain in the House in the 1980s.

“Honor is extremely important to him,” Lungren said. “Both his own honor and the honor of the institution.”

But as for whether McCain will be successful in convincing some of Lungren’s more skeptical colleagues to jump on board, the Californian said “time will tell.”

Kirk, a leader of House Republican moderates, said that McCain’s experience, especially on issues of national defense and foreign policy, were among the chief reasons he decided to get on board.

Kirk has known McCain ever since the Illinois Congressman was a staffer in the House, where McCain served from 1982 to 1986. He also shares a connection with McCain because both men served in the Navy.

“I’ve built an alliance with him really based on his character more than anything else,” Kirk said, calling McCain a reformer in the mold of former President Theodore Roosevelt.

When asked if he was concerned that McCain’s maverick image could hurt him among conservatives in the GOP base, Kirk said that last cycle’s elections were proof that voters were looking for less partisan bickering and more thoughtful legislating coming from Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a leading fiscal conservative, is not taking a formal role in McCain’s outreach efforts to House Members, but he is supporting his fellow Arizonan and asking colleagues to look at McCain’s record.

“He’s not taking conservatives for granted,” Flake said.

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