By Alexander Bolton - 03/06/07 08:36 PM EST
The top law enforcement officials from South Carolina, Michigan, Washington state, Utah, Alabama, Indiana, and North Dakota privately revealed their support of McCain during a meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General this week.
Three of the attorneys general endorsing McCain said the Arizona lawmaker is winning over the majority of Republican officials and former Bush campaign supporters in their home states.
Five of the states represented are expected to hold early primaries next year. South Carolina will host one on Feb. 2 or earlier; Alabama and Utah have set elections for Feb. 5., and Michigan and North Dakota are expected to move up their primaries to join perhaps more than 20 other states on that date.
Two of the states, South Carolina and Michigan, are shaping up as pivotal contests between McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
“Most of the establishment is for McCain. Most of the establishment last time was for Bush,” said South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, who pledged neutrality in 2000 when he served as state party chairman.
“It’s the old Bush and McCain teams combined,” said McMaster, who said that the senator has been able to consolidate the influential party members who split their allegiances six years ago. “The people who used to sit around the table and decide how much money would be raised for Bush in 2000 and those that sat around the McCain table, which was a smaller table in 2000, are all sitting around this table.”
South Carolina is expected to play an important role next year as it did in 2000, when Bush captured the state’s Republican establishment and social conservatives to beat McCain by 11 points, sapping the momentum McCain had generated by winning the New Hampshire primary.
Political analysts have described the South Carolina primary as a “conservative firewall” that could give a candidate a decisive edge over rivals. All three Republican frontrunners have drawn criticism for adopting centrist political positions in the past.
McMaster added that over half the members of the state House are supporting McCain, including state House Speaker Bobby Harrell.
He said the campaign has also attracted Bush fundraisers from the state, such as Edward Floyd, the president of Floyd Medical Associates, and attorney John Rainey.
Floyd and Rainey ranked among Bush’s top national fundraisers in 2000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group that tracks campaign financing. Floyd was one of Bush’s top money men in 2004.
Perhaps surprisingly, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has held off from endorsing anyone, even though he lined up behind McCain in 2000. Conservative leaders have pushed Sanford to enter the race himself but so far he has declined, prompting speculation that he may be angling for the No. 2 spot on the GOP ticket.
Supporters will hold a “big fundraiser” for McCain in the state on Friday, said McMaster.
Attorney General Mike Cox, the highest-ranking Republican in Michigan, is also throwing his weight behind McCain. He said he will work to organize grassroots supporters and raise money for the campaign.
Michigan is the site of another expected showdown between Romney and McCain. It is considered friendly turf for McCain because he defeated Bush there in 2000. But Romney launched his campaign in Dearborn, Mich., on the strength of his family roots in the state. He was born in Detroit and his father served as governor in the 1960s.
Cox, who backed Bush in 2000, said that most of Bush’s network is now aligned with McCain. He added that McCain won despite having fewer allies in the state.
“He didn’t have that many,” he said. “Most of the McCain people in 2007 that are there on the ground were strong George Bush people. It’s a different year, it’s a different cycle.”
For example, Ronald Weiser, CEO of McKinley Associates, and Jim Nicholson, president of PVS Chemicals, two of Bush’s “pioneer” fundraisers in 2000, are now on McCain’s team, said Cox and an aide.
Cox described himself as the most identifiable conservative in Michigan.
“One of my missions is to point out how conservative [McCain] is compared to the other candidates in the race,” he said. “McCain has turned out to be the most enduring conservative in the group, and he can win.”
Attorney General Rob McKenna is the highest-ranking Republican in Washington state. He said the state’s voters have a strong independent streak and would be attracted to McCain’s reputation as an independent Republican.
He said the state will likely have its primary in early March and said it could play an important role if the Republican nomination is still contested after Feb. 5, which is on the verge of becoming the date of a de facto national primary.
McKenna said that the concentration of high-tech industry in Washington makes it a political fundraising destination and that Bush raised much money there for the 2000 election.
“He has a lot of key people from the Bush team in 2000,” said McKenna, who added that McCain will soon make a fundraising trip to Washington.
Other attorneys general who are supporting McCain are Troy King of Alabama, Steve Carter of Indiana, Wayne Stenehjem of North Dakota and Mark Shurtleff of Utah.