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McCain Hits the Trail — but Not Just for Himself

Now that Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) has survived his own challenging primary, the four-term incumbent plans to focus more on helping fellow Republicans in tough races. And in a year when the GOP could conceivably win control of Congress, the 2008 presidential nominee is expected to be an active advocate for candidates across the country.

“He certainly plans on doing everything in his power to ensure that we regain control of the House and Senate,” McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said. “So he’ll be out there campaigning, raising money — something he really looks forward to.”

Rogers noted that McCain will not take his own general election race for granted, even though he is heavily favored. McCain has scheduled six campaign events around his state for Thursday and Friday.

Still, McCain will likely receive requests to appear in districts and states where candidates feel he can help. His first stop is in California on Monday. He will attend a fundraiser for GOP Senate candidate Carly Fiorina. He’s also scheduled to be in New York on Sept. 7 on behalf of California gubernatorial contender Meg Whitman.

Busy with this week’s primary against former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, the McCain campaign hasn’t scheduled any other events yet, Rogers said. But the National Republican Congressional Committee, for one, is looking forward to more help from him.

“Aside from being an American hero and a sought-after surrogate, John McCain is a political survivor,” NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay said. “His story is one that all Republican candidates can learn from and voters of all political parties continue to be drawn to.”

Adoration for McCain is not party-wide, as many conservatives don’t agree with some of the policy stances that he’s taken over the years. Once known as a “maverick,” McCain turned off many on the right over the years as he led the push for comprehensive immigration and campaign finance reforms.

“There are still people in the party that never warmed up to him and probably wouldn’t have voted for him in 2008 if he hadn’t picked Sarah Palin as his running mate,” said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research. “I think he has a role to play as a senior statesman, but you probably won’t see him go down to a deeply conservative district in Alabama.”

During the Arizona Senate primary against the more conservative Hayworth, McCain dropped his long-held “maverick” label and appeared to alter his position on several issues, such as immigration and campaign finance, which once set him apart from the more conservative wing of his party. Democrats say this has severely hurt his image and could serve as a detriment to the GOP House candidates he may try to help.

“McCain completely destroyed his brand and long-held beliefs in order to win over the extreme right wing of his party,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Ryan Rudominer said. “If one of the many flawed NRCC candidates wants to roll out the red carpet for McCain and all that baggage, they do so at their peril.”

Mark McKinnon, a former McCain adviser, disagrees.

“McCain is a hero and an icon, and it’s going to take more than a tough re-election battle to chip away at his platinum status among the GOP faithful,” he said. “I suspect we’ll see more of John McCain on the trail for Republicans this fall than we will of [President] Barack Obama for Democrats.”

McCain was already on the trail during primary season. He traveled to Colorado two days before the state’s Aug. 10 primary to help Senate candidate Jane Norton, who lost to the more conservative Ken Buck. He attended a New Hampshire town hall in March for Senate candidate Kelly Ayotte, whose primary is next month. And in June, he served as the special guest at a fundraiser in New Mexico for House nominee Jon Barela, who’s running in the 1st district, which Obama won with 60 percent.

“We are extremely honored to have his support and appreciate his many years of service to our country,” said Barela’s communications director, Angela Heisel.

McCain has also backed conservative candidates involved in competitive primaries, although his endorsement is not always publicized for all to see. Republican Rep. Todd Tiahrt used McCain’s endorsement of his Kansas Senate primary opponent, Rep. Jerry Moran, to prove that Tiahrt was more conservative on the issue of immigration.

Moran went on to win the nomination. On Moran’s campaign website, he lists endorsements in two categories: national conservative leaders and veterans. McCain, a veteran who is considered a war hero, can’t be found on either list.

Going forward, Republican operatives say McCain can likely be found in many of the 48 Congressional districts that he won as a presidential candidate in 2008 that are now held by Democrats. That includes districts in Ohio, where McCain lost by 5 points statewide but carried a handful of competitive Congressional districts, including those of Democratic Reps. John Boccieri (16th district) and Zack Space (18th district).

McCain also remains popular in New Hampshire, where he won the presidential primary in 2000 and 2008, and in Arizona, where he beat back his fiercest primary challenge ever with a 24-point victory Tuesday. He is also likely to pop up in suburban districts where Democrats have picked up seats in the last two elections.

“I think McCain could be very effective in the swing districts, particularly in places that Republicans haven’t done well lately,” Coker said.

Through his Country First Political Action Committee, formed in January 2009, McCain has donated more than $165,000 to Republicans running for office this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Recipients include 21 Senate candidates and 13 House candidates. An e-mail to the Country First PAC regarding future donations was not returned.

But McCain’s allies say his name recognition, more than his money, is what many Republicans want.

“John McCain will be a vital surrogate for the center/right movement in the looming general election,” former McCain strategist John Weaver said. “He has incredible credentials on spending issues as the toughest deficit hawk in the land. And for independent voters with buyer’s remorse from 2008, what better symbol to have in a close race than John himself?”

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