WASHINGTON (JTA) — John McCain’s reputation as a maverick holds true in the Jewish world, where his list of allies spans the political spectrum.
His long-term support for Israel and human rights issues along with his willingness to cross party lines has won him allies among conservative Republicans, independent Democrats, and even some liberal Jews.
Topping his list of Jewish supporters is U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the independent Democrat who made headlines by endorsing the presidential bid of his Republican colleague from Arizona — and stumped for him in heavily Jewish districts in Florida.
A U.S. senator from Arizona since 1986, McCain developed a reputation for breaking with his Republican colleagues. Most famously he joined with Russ Feingold, a Jewish Democrat from Wisconsin, in passing the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act in 2002.
In a recent poll of American Jewish opinion, McCain ranked behind former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani as the second-favored Republican. He scored a 32 percent favorability rating among Jews in general and 49 percent among Republicans, according to the American Jewish Committee survey.
Lieberman’s backing of McCain has led to mutterings among political insiders over the possibility of a McCain-Lieberman ticket in the general election. It would be Lieberman’s second bid for the vice presidency; he was the first Jew on a viable ticket when Al Gore picked him as a running mate in 2000.
Both McCain and Lieberman support the Bush administration’s position on the Iraq war and have taken a hard-line approach to Iran.
“I think it’s helped McCain a lot,” Ben Chouake, president of the pro-Israel Norpac and a member of McCain’s finance committee, told JTA in December, referring to Lieberman’s endorsement.
But McCain has drawn support from staunch Republican and politically conservative Jews as well.
McCain at times also has drawn Jewish support — if not political backing — from left-wing Jews. The U.S. branch of Rabbis for Human Rights met with McCain to support his 2005 amendment to a defense appropriations bill that prohibits inhumane treatment of prisoners, including those at Guantanamo Bay, and also narrowly defined acceptable interrogation practices.
He endured 5-1/2 years of torture at the hands of the Viet Cong after the Navy bomber he was flying was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967. McCain remained in the Navy until 1981, when he was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
McCain repeatedly has cited Israel’s 1999 ban on torture in refuting claims that it is a helpful tool in combating terrorism.
His relationship with Bush has changed over the years. Bush and McCain sparred fiercely in the 2000 presidential campaign, and the senator toyed with a vice presidency offer from Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic candidate in 2004.
That marginalized McCain among some party faithfuls, leading McCain to initially tamp down his criticisms of Bush in this campaign.
Recently, however, he reversed that policy, including a few barbs in his speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition candidates’ forum in October — all the more notable because the RJC is a redoubt of Bush loyalists.
Noting reports of the success of the surge of ground troops in Iraq, McCain reminded the RJC crowd that his was a lonely voice advocating additional troops in 2004.
“I was criticized by Republicans because of my disloyalty,” he said.
McCain also said he did not trust Russian President Vladimir Putin’s role in contributing to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“I looked into Putin’s eyes and I saw three letters — a K, a G and a B,” he said, referring to Putin’s earlier career as a spy. Bush had famously said that he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw a good soul.
The crowd ignored the barbs; almost every questioner started by saluting McCain’s military service.
Fred Zeidman, a Texas venture capitalist and political fund-raiser, has long been a McCain ally and is also very close to Bush. Zeidman agreed that McCain was earning respect in the party as his policies appeared to be vindicated.
“He has been steadfast in his beliefs and his opinions, but there has been a shift in the administration toward things McCain has been supportive of all along,” Zeidman said.
According to campaign contribution reports, McCain has raised $35,900 from individual board members of the Republican Jewish Coalition, surpassed only by Giuliani’s $58,750.
McCain drew criticism last fall after he told beliefnet.com that he would prefer to vote for a candidate who shared his Christian religious views. Republican Jewish leaders said McCain’s offhand remarks needed to be put in the context of his longstanding support for the Jewish people.
“While members of the Republican Jewish Coalition would not have expressed themselves in the manner Sen. McCain did, a full reading of the entire interview shows Sen. McCain unequivocally reaffirming the separation of church and state and recognizing the Judeo-Christian values upon which this country was founded,” the coalition said in a statement.
McCain’s biggest credential may be the longevity of his career, Zeidman said.
“John McCain is the only candidate that has a 20-year demonstrated history of unequivocal support for the State of Israel,” he said. “I think it’s fascinating to watch the world evolve back toward John McCain. To see him back in the front of this race is a credit to the citizens of this country.”