Gingrich or Romney: McCain prepares to play kingmaker in 2012 GOP primary

Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee in 2008, is moving toward endorsing a candidate for 2012. 

Republican sources familiar with his thinking say he will probably endorse his onetime political enemy, Mitt Romney.

There is virtually no chance, sources say, that he will pick former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who has surged into the lead in polls, stoking consternation among his ex-colleagues on Capitol Hill.

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Asked Tuesday if he might back a candidate in the GOP primary, McCain told The Hill, “Yeah, I think it would be several months later on.”

This is a change from the senator’s stance earlier this year, when said he would not endorse during the primary. 

His statements come as angst among Republicans in Washington is intensifying. Publicly and privately, GOP kingmakers have said they are dreading the possibility that Gingrich will capture the Republican nomination. 

McCain would not say which candidate he is likely to support; later in the day, however, he qualified his statement to say he had not made a final decision about whether to endorse a candidate.

McCain considers Romney one of the most helpful surrogates of his 2008 campaign. 

“He went wherever and whenever he was asked,” said a source familiar with Romney’s contribution to the campaign after the former Massachusetts governor dropped out of contention.

Romney also backed McCain in his 2010 primary against former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, traveling to Arizona to stump for the senator. 

A McCain endorsement would probably come after the caucuses in Iowa, where polls show Romney is trailing. The primary in New Hampshire, a state fond of McCain, soon follows Iowa’s vote.

McCain won New Hampshire in the 2000 and 2008 GOP primaries, and his endorsement would give Romney a major boost in what is a must-win state for the former governor. It would also be helpful in South Carolina, where McCain is popular among GOP voters who favor a strong national defense. 

Four years ago, it was hard, if not impossible, to contemplate McCain and Romney working together. The two went toe-to-toe in most of the primary debates. Romney ripped McCain for voting against the 2001 tax cuts and McCain mocked Romney as the “candidate of change,” referencing Romney’s shifts on policy matters.

There is growing concern among many of McCain’s Senate Republican colleagues on whether Gingrich is electable in a match-up against President Obama. 

“Newt’s hand is always six inches from the self-destruct button,” one GOP lawmaker said last week. 

McCain said, “I don’t know if he’s electable. You have to see how candidates evolve.”

Contemplating an endorsement of Romney marks a shift for McCain, who earlier this year told reporters that he would not back a candidate. 

“I intend, as is the tradition of losers, to remain out of the primaries,” McCain quipped to reporters in April at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.  

But when McCain made that comment, the GOP primary was still wide open. Republican insiders saw former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty as a potential front-runner, they were pushing Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels to run, and some party bigwigs were still holding out for Texas Gov. Rick Perry and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to enter the fray.  

Sarah Palin, McCain’s 2008 running mate, was also considering a bid at that time.

Eight months later, the race is now widely considered a two-man race between Romney and Gingrich.

Gingrich helped McCain’s presidential campaign at times, but was also an occasional irritant. The two strong-willed men have clashed on high-profile issues such as campaign finance reform and subsidies for ethanol. 

McCain and Gingrich have been dominant players in Washington for decades, and they both served in the House from 1983 to 1986. 

Gingrich made his biggest contribution to McCain’s 2008 campaign in the area of energy policy. He urged the candidate to embrace expanded oil-and-gas drilling as a solution to high energy prices; “Drill, baby, drill!” became one of the slogans of the 2008 convention. 

Gingrich consulted with McCain in other policy areas and was “brimming with ideas,” according to one source familiar with the campaign. 

However, he sometimes complicated McCain’s strategy. 

Gingrich met privately with House GOP lawmakers in the summer of 2008 and urged them to oppose housing legislation that McCain was “inclined” to support, according to The New York Times. Gingrich also stoked GOP skepticism of the Wall Street bailout, which McCain supported, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 

Gingrich predicted early in the 2008 race that McCain’s support for campaign finance and immigration reforms would weigh down his presidential bid. 

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“I do think Sen. McCain carries both the burden of McCain-Feingold and now the burden of the McCain-Kennedy bill and I think in a sense if you’re handicapping you’d say he has the greatest challenge in a Republican primary of explaining those positions,” Gingrich said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. 

In 2006, Gingrich called for the repeal of McCain’s 2002 campaign finance reform legislation. 

Gingrich supports federal subsidies for ethanol, claiming they will help the nation shed its dependence on foreign oil. 

McCain has been one of Congress’s most outspoken critics of ethanol subsidies. Earlier this year, he said, “Ethanol is a joke.”

McCain and Gingrich have also differed over earmarks.

McCain defined himself in Congress as a leading critic of earmarks and pork-barrel projects, campaigning against the practice in 2008 and pushing his colleagues to adopt a moratorium on earmarks. 

Gingrich aggressively used earmarks to wield influence after becoming House Speaker in 1995. Originally limited mostly to the members of the Appropriations Committee, Gingrich widened their distribution to ensure loyalty. 

The Associated Press reported that the number of earmarks increased from more than 1,300 projects in 1994 to nearly 14,000 projects totaling more than $27 billion in 2005.