McCain courts GOP base

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Sen. John McCain has long rankled social conservatives with his stance on issues such as campaign finance reform and support for some embryonic stem cell research. He sought yesterday to reassure those voters of his conservative credentials as he outlined his philosophy for appointing judges to the federal bench.

In an address at Wake Forest University, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee pledged to nominate judges who believe "there are clear limits to the scope of judicial power" and who are "faithful in all things to the Constitution of the United States."


McCain added that he would choose nominees with "a proven record of excellence in the law, and a proven commitment to judicial restraint."

By way of example, McCain said that he would look for people in the cast of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., and his friend the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. They are, he said, "jurists of the highest caliber who know their own minds, and know the law, and know the difference."


Some Democratic leaders immediately denounced McCain's speech. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont accused McCain of pandering to the far right. Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said in statement that McCain voted for every one of President Bush's activist judges and said McCain "promises hundreds more just like them."

The president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group, said that McCain was speaking in code to abortion opponents by signaling that he would appoint justices who favor overturning the abortion-rights decision Roe v. Wade.

Conservatives found much to like in the speech, which was viewed as an important step for McCain in energizing the base for the fall election. Though the Arizona senator has been a consistent and reliable vote on Republican nominees, he angered conservatives in 2005 when he led a bipartisan group of senators - known as the "Gang of 14" - that forestalled a Republican-backed rule change that would have made it more difficult for Democrats to block President Bush's stalled nominees.

Ed Whelan, a former law clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia and president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said he was encouraged by McCain's assertion that the role of judges is "one of the defining issues of this presidential election."

Whelan also noted that McCain's promise to nominate judges with a "proven record" would be an important point with conservative Republicans. Some felt betrayed by Bush's nomination of White House counsel Harriet E. Miers, who was viewed as having no track record, and many have been disappointed by the rulings of Justice David H. Souter, nominated by Bush's father.

Introduced at Wake Forest's Wait Chapel by former Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, McCain railed against "activist judges" who have ruled on issues "never intended to be heard in courts or decided by judges."

McCain also contrasted his judicial philosophy with that of his Democratic opponents. Though both Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama opposed Roberts, McCain criticized the criteria Obama articulated for evaluating judicial nominees as a vague "attempt to justify judicial activism."

Maeve Reston writes for the Los Angeles Times.