WASHINGTON -- Maverick Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, in a widening rift with President Bush and his party's dominant conservative wing, is talking with advisers about leaving the GOP and launching a third-party challenge to Bush in 2004, those close to the senator say.
Such a move is not imminent, they say. For the near term, McCain, who upset Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary and won 5 million primary-season votes, will work to build a centrist faction within the GOP to mirror the moderate "New Democrats."
But if Bush struggles as president, and if McCain loses on key issues such as defense funding and campaign finance reform, advisers say he may challenge Bush in the same way the reformist Teddy Roosevelt, McCain's hero, battled a conservative Republican, William Howard Taft, in 1912.
This weekend, McCain is hosting the Senate Democratic leader, Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), at his home in Sedona, Ariz. His office called it a "social event," but McCain has met privately to discuss party switching with at least three Democratic senators -- Daschle, Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and John Edwards (N.C.).
On Thursday, four McCain loyalists -- campaign strategist John Weaver, legislative director Daniel McKivergan, Weekly Standard magazine publisher William Kristol and Hudson Institute scholar Marshall Wittmann -- met over lunch to debate whether McCain should quit the GOP.
McCain met in recent weeks with Will Marshall, a top official of the Democratic Leadership Council, to discuss similarities over national service, tax and environmental policies. "I was struck by how much we were in common," Marshall said. "It's an intriguing development."
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