WASHINGTON — It is a word so closely associated with Sen. John McCain that his critics dryly joke it has become part of his name, a term so ubiquitous that McCain has a stock answer whenever he's asked about the reputation that both lifts and dogs him.
"I would prefer to describe myself as a great American," he says, deadpan.
At a time when the Republican president's approval ratings are in the cellar, it's helpful for the Republican vying to replace him to have a certain reputation: maverick.
But McCain's 21-year record in the U.S. Senate, as well as many of the positions he has taken as a candidate, shows he is a solid conservative who generally supports the Republican orthodoxy.
In terms of ideology and matters of peace and prosperity — taxes, health care, economic policy, the war in Iraq — McCain and President Bush are nearly indistinguishable, favoring the free market over government intervention, cutting taxes for the rich and corporations, and preferring pressure or estrangement over negotiation with America's enemies.
Still, the frequent assertion by the Democratic Party and its standard bearer, Sen. Barack Obama, that a vote for McCain is a vote for a "third Bush term" is an overstatement.
McCain has departed from his party and his president on many high-profile issues, from embryonic stem cell research to combating global warming to sending more U.S. troops to Iraq at a time when his colleagues were loath to do so.
McCain also has been far more willing than Bush to work with Democrats to produce legislation — often to his party's irritation. In that way, McCain's maverick reputation is as much a product of style as of substance. He is widely known for being rough on those who disagree with him, no matter their party affiliation.
But when you ask a Republican in House leadership if McCain's recent declaration in support of offshore drilling was an attempt to cozy up to his GOP colleagues, Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow says no.
"There aren't that many issues where we aren't in synch," Putnam said.
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According to the nonpartisan Congressional Quarterly (a sister publication of the Times), McCain has voted with his party about 90 percent of the time over the past five years.
"Energy, taxes, health care — he's right in line with the general Republican philosophy there," said Patrick Kennedy, chairman of the political science department at Arizona State University, who has followed McCain since he joined the Senate in 1987.
McCain has voted to extend Bush's signature tax cuts that offer the deepest cuts for the wealthy, and he recently proposed more of his own. He has consistently backed private savings accounts for Social Security, similar to Bush. Like Bush, he has pledged to stay the course in Iraq. And like Bush, he has opposed significant government action in the housing crisis, preferring to let the market work itself out.
But when McCain splits with his conservative colleagues, he isn't always gentle about it.
"Obviously, there's a difference between voting for campaign finance reform and taking it upon your shoulders as the issue you're going to dedicate five years of your political life to," said Nachama Soloveichik, head of communications for the conservative Club for Growth, which advocates low taxes and free-market policies. "McCain has definitely put himself out there and ticked off a lot of people."
Soloveichik was referring to the campaign finance reform bill of 2002, authored by McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., which limited third-party political advertising and contributions. To say many conservatives hate it would be an understatement.
McCain poured salt in the wound when he defended the bill on The Don Imus Show in April 2006, essentially saying the bill's opponents prefer corruption. "I know that money corrupts. ... I would rather have a clean government than one where, 'First Amendment rights' are being respected, that has become corrupt. If I had my choice, I'd rather have the clean government."
In 2003, at a time when congressional Republicans were marching in lockstep with Bush on Iraq, McCain broke ranks by openly criticizing then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield, and Bush indirectly — a sharp message on the eve of Bush's re-election campaign.
"As Lincoln and Truman demonstrated, American presidents cannot always leave decisions on matters of supreme national interest to their subordinates," he told the Council on Foreign Relations.
And the list of senior Republicans he has insulted, and cursed, in the Senate includes Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the former Appropriations Committee chairman; Pete Domenici of New Mexico, the former Budget Committee chairman whom McCain reportedly called an "a--hole"; and John Cornyn of Texas, to whom McCain reportedly said "f--- you" during an argument over immigration.
In 2003, before the Bush administration acknowledged global warming exists, McCain took to the Senate floor to advocate limiting pollution to slow climate change. He and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent who was a Democrat at the time, proposed a bill to cap carbon emissions and allow pollution credits to be traded on the open market, which many conservatives hate.
Although he opposes abortion rights, McCain has been a vocal proponent of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, twice voting for bills Bush vetoed. A former prisoner of war in Vietnam, he broke with the Bush administration over the treatment of detainees from Iraq and Afghanistan, and called for closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That's not popular with the right, either.
In 2003, he joined Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., in authoring a bill to create a Patients' Bill of Rights, which congressional Republicans killed after a big fight. In 2005, he was one of the so-called Gang of 14, a bipartisan group of senators that struck a deal on the confirmation of Bush's appointees to federal appeals courts to preserve Senate rules permitting the minority to filibuster.
Under the compromise, some of the president's picks would be confirmed, and others wouldn't. Considering that Republicans ran the Senate at the time, many conservatives are still peeved about that one.
And last year, even though he needed to court the GOP base to win the presidential nomination, he again teamed up with Kennedy to push a bill creating a path to legal status for millions of illegal immigrants. Bush supported it, but rank-and-file Republicans really hated it. The bill tanked and his candidacy almost did, too.
"He has this, 'This is what I'm going to do, and if you don't like it, screw you' attitude," Soloveichik said. "For conservatives, when he's standing next to Ted Kennedy and he says that, it's annoying."
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The first mention the Times could find of McCain as a maverick was in 1989, in a story about the American Conservative Union's ratings for the Arizona congressional delegation. McCain, a first-term senator, scored 80 out of 100. Dan Casey, then the director of the ACU, said, "He's a good conservative, but something of a maverick."
Nearly 20 years later, McCain's reputation as a maverick poses both opportunity and risks. Polls show Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of President Bush's performance, and Republican prospects in key congressional races look poor. In times like these, it's helpful to be seen as someone who goes his own way.
Yet as the Republican standard-bearer, McCain can't afford to alienate the 30 percent of Americans who think Bush is doing swell. Those are the party faithful whose energy and enthusiasm have buoyed Republicans in the past two presidential elections.
Even McCain seems conflicted at times. As he traveled the country this month, cheering Republicans with his newfound advocacy for offshore drilling, McCain's campaign was running a TV ad showing grim pictures of traffic jams and dirty smokestacks and showing off newspaper headlines such as, "McCain climate views clash with GOP."
"John McCain stood up to the president and sounded the alarm on global warming . . . five years ago," the narrator in the TV ad says.
In a twist, McCain's friends in the Senate and the Democrats trying to disabuse voters of the notion that McCain is a maverick agree on one thing: He's no moderate.
"I think he's a conservative, and he's a conservative who has a heart, and in that respect, I relate," said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., a close friend and supporter who backed the immigration bill. "He is willing to take positions that some might view as more moderate at times."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has campaigned with McCain, said the maverick label has stuck because "(reporters) don't write about the 90 percent agreement, you write about the 10 percent when a senator goes a different path from his party. That's what makes news."
"When you look at these issues, there's a theme here," Graham added. "They're all hard, and they will require bipartisanship to solve, and they deal with a problem the country is facing."
Times staff writer Alex Leary and news researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0577.