McCain advisors step away from Bush, but not too far


The Republican party's presumptive presidential nominee John McCain is engaged in a delicate dance, distancing himself from US President George W. Bush while courting the conservative ideals of the outgoing president's party.

Few of McCain's top advisors are well known to the general public, and even fewer are directly linked to the highly unpopular Bush administration.

However neoconservatives, whose thinking has directed Bush's foreign policy following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, are ever-present and powerful in McCain's inner circle.

Randy Scheunemann, McCain's chief foreign policy spokesman, in 2002 founded the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, which agitated for the US invasion that was launched in 2003.

Scheunemann and Robert Kagan, another McCain advisor, head the neoconservative Project for a New American Century, which takes a hawkish line on foreign policy issues.

Their influence helps explain McCain's hardline stance on Iraq, where he has vowed to keep American troops for "as long as it takes," as well on Iran, Cuba, North Korea and even Russia, which he wants tossed out of the Group of Eight industrialized nations club over an erosion of democracy.

McCain, who has a reputation for being more independent-minded than most right-wing Republican leaders, is also close to independent Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, the 2004 nominee for vice president, alongside failed presidential contender Al Gore. Lieberman's support for the Iraq war has put him starkly at odds with liberal Democrats.

When it comes to the economy meanwhile, McCain has sought a range of diverse opinions, and has not drawn from the ranks of Bush economic advisors.

According to author Matt Welch, who wrote a critical biography of McCain called "Myth of a Maverick," the economy is of secondary importance to the 71-year-old Arizona senator.

"On the economy, he's just throwing (in) anyone who's around ... His approach on the economy is not based on principles," said Welch, adding that McCain's only general principles are free trade and his call for reform of th national Social Security pension system, and the Medicare health insurance scheme.

"He's much more interested (in foreign policy) than Bush," the author said, pointing out that neoconservatives have surrounded McCain since the 1990s. "He's running on foreign policy this year."

In fact, the range of his advisors' views on the economy was startling enough to conservative writer Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard that he wrote: "Those people aren't like each other at all."

"A couple of them, if you put them in the same room, would set off an intergalactic explosion like the collision of matter and antimatter," he added.

The main sources of their differences come down to whether to lower taxes (which McCain criticized at the beginning of the Bush presidency) and to balancing the budget (McCain supports amending the Constitution to mandate a balanced federal budget).

His main spokesman on economic matters is Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former Director of the Congressional Budget Office, who takes a stringent view on budgetary matters and is quick to denounce the social programs promised by Democrat Barack Obama.

McCain has largely allocated the public communication role of his view on economic matters to Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard who oversaw the complicated merger with computer maker Compaq.

In regular television appearances, Fiorina touts the positive economic impact of lower taxes.

On legislative matters, McCain has allowed former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Hollywood actor Fred Thompson, a former US senator, to speak on his behalf.

Both promote firm approaches to the "war on terror," and Thompson in particular is committed to naming right-leaning Supreme Court justices to the bench, similar to conservatives John Roberts and Samuel Alito chosen by Bush.