Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Romney, McCain vie for House Supporters

Romney, McCain vie for House supporters
By Susan Crabtree (The Hill)

Some House conservatives are struggling to become acclimated to their marginalized role as minority members, but in recent days at least, they’ve been enjoying the attention of two powerful politicians: Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Both potential presidential candidates are racing to recast their reputations as moderates. The senator and the former Massachusetts governor recognize that by courting House Republicans, they can silence critics early and tap into a large swath of grassroots support that will be key in determining the outcome of the GOP primary contest early next year.

“A lot of people wonder how a conservative got elected governor in Massachusetts,” remarked GOP Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), who noted that Romney called to congratulate him the day he was elected conference chairman in November. “I’m still learning about Romney and his policies.”

Yesterday Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) formally endorsed Romney, splitting the key primary state’s senators between the two GOP presidential frontrunners. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is a good friend of McCain’s and for months has been making calls on his behalf to help him round up South Carolina GOP supporters. But the endorsement came as no surprise to those watching the race closely; DeMint had held a fundraiser for Romney last year.

While Romney and McCain’s efforts in South Carolina have been making headlines recently, the two also are keeping a close watch on conservative support in the House. Romney was the first to reach out to House Republicans last year, taking advantage of some conservatives’ “anybody but McCain” mentality and disdain for the Arizona lawmaker’s campaign-finance reform and immigration agendas. Romney has to contend with his own record on gay marriage and opposition to the Contract with America. In recent months, he also has made a concerted effort to reach out to Southern religious leaders to mollify any concerns they may have regarding his Mormon faith.

After hearing about Romney’s early efforts, McCain began working on cementing the support of a network of House members who backed him in 2000.

Nearly all of the dozen GOP members interviewed for this article had been contacted by one of the two candidates — many of them during the first week of 2007. Although he traveled around the country for numerous GOP candidates during the campaign, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani appears less focused on developing a dialogue with House conservatives than Romney or McCain.

Romney’s decision Friday to tap Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) as a senior adviser, the first House member to take on such a formal role in a campaign, has fueled speculation about Romney’s and McCain’s efforts to coax conservatives to join their respective camps. Romney also plans to visit House GOP members on the Hill at the end of this week, according to one knowledgeable GOP aide.

“It’s no secret that a governor from Massachusetts needs to reach out to conservatives, especially in the South, if he’s going to have any chance of getting the nomination,” Blackburn spokesman Matt Lambert said. “He’s doing that and making a very big push, especially in Tennessee.”

Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said Reps. John Campbell (R-Calif.), Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) have come out in support of the former Massachusetts governor.

“We’ve reached out to a broad spectrum of the House Republican conference,” Madden said. “We expect a number of people to come on board publicly soon — both in the field and the fundraising side of things.”

Since Romney is currently out of office, he can spend more time on outreach than McCain, who has spent the last few months at the forefront of national security issues, such as the military commissions bill last fall and the debate over whether to back a surge of U.S. troops in Iraq.

“Certainly, [Romney] has reached out more aggressively than others,” Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who chaired the Republican Study Committee (RSC) last cycle, said. But Pence said he would not discount McCain’s efforts, which “unquestionably” resulted in a boost among conservative House Republicans when he endorsed Rep. John Shadegg’s (R-Ariz.) campaign for minority whip (even though Shadegg lost that race to Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).)

Shadegg doesn’t have a formal role in the McCain campaign yet, but he has been buttonholing fellow House Republicans on the Arizona senator’s behalf, an effort he has stepped up in recent days. McCain, he said, was not 100 percent certain he would run for president until he discussed the possibility in detail over the holidays with his wife, Cindy, and family at their Sedona retreat. Shadegg, a former chairman of the RSC, said last week McCain called to give him the go-ahead to be more aggressive in his recruiting efforts in the House.

“The race is on among House conservatives,” Shadegg said, underscoring House Republicans’ respect for McCain on national security issues. Shadegg said so far those supporting McCain publicly include Arizona Republican Reps. Rick Renzi and Jeff Flake and that several lawmakers from various areas across the country privately support McCain. Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) has been an outspoken booster, and Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) is expected to support the fellow champion of campaign-finance reform.

“We have commitments [from House Republicans] but we haven’t released them yet,” a spokesman for McCain’s exploratory committee, Craig Goldman, said. “The big problem right now is that we’re still in the exploratory campaign.”

Both candidates have been invited to speak at an upcoming Heritage Foundation retreat Feb. 1 and 2 that many conservative House members are scheduled to attend. Romney plans to discuss his efforts as governor of Massachusetts to implement a universal healthcare plan. McCain has been asked to address national defense issues. Goldman did not know whether McCain had accepted the invitation, and a call to McCain’s Senate office was not returned

Perhaps the best way for the candidates to demonstrate their concern for House Republicans would be by helping to retire the National Republican Congressional Committee’s debt, which escalated to more than $15 million last year. House Republicans, nervous about their own reelection prospects in 2008 and deeply concerned about the debt, may not want to hear about another politician’s ambitions right now, but providing some fundraising help could change that dynamic.

House Republicans plan to tap the entire Republican Party leadership structure, including prospective presidential candidates, to help them solicit funds for the debt-retirement effort, one GOP aide said. McCain, Romney and Giuliani already earned plenty of credit for fundraising during the past election cycle. In the final months of the campaign, McCain, as well as Giuliani, crisscrossed the country to appear with candidates at fundraisers and public events.

“As far as trying to help keep the majority, no one worked harder than John McCain in 2006,” said Goldman.

McCain’s Straight Talk America PAC doled out roughly $280,000 to 75 candidates, $30,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and $15,000 to the NRCC during the 2006 cycle. Romney, for his part, gave $171,000 to 64 candidates, $26,000 to the NRSC and $2,000 to the House Conservatives Fund, the RSC’s PAC. Not to be outdone, Giuliani contributed an impressive $366,000 to 71 candidates.

Romney began his conservative outreach early. His $2,000 donation to the RSC’s PAC came in September 2005 and he attended a fundraiser for the PAC months before, in June.

“I’ve spent some time with Gov. Romney and I like what I have seen,” said Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), a prominent RSC member who heads up the PAC. “He seems to be a Ronald Reagan, supply-side Republican.”

Feeney’s positive reaction is proof that Romney’s talks are producing results. Madden said most of the discussions with House Republicans revolve around Romney’s commitment to fiscal discipline. Shadegg, meanwhile, said McCain and House conservatives have had their differences in the past, but they largely agree on national security issues.

However, the current Iraq “surge” strategy already is dividing conservative House members. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the ranking member on the Intelligence Committee and a Republican from Michigan, a key primary win for McCain in 2000, last week said he opposes a dramatic increase in troops, arguing that the Iraqi military is on the verge of being ready to take over.

Hoekstra has not committed to either possible contender and said he remains open to both of their arguments. McCain called him last week and Romney had visited his district a month ago. Meanwhile, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said Romney had planned to visit his district “to meet with some Bush-Cheney” folks last weekend.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), who chairs the RSC, said he has known McCain personally for a number of years but didn’t know Romney until he spoke at the fundraiser for the RSC’s PAC. He too has not committed to either candidate.

“House Republicans will certainly be a part of any presidential strategy, and my guess is we’ll end up having a pretty healthy dialogue about who to support,” he said. “House conservatives will be looking for the candidate that most closely resembles conservative values to take up our banner into November and capture the hearts and minds of the American public. That’s what we’re going to be looking for.”

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