Before heading out on a congressional trip that includes stops in Iraq and Israel, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — the presumptive Republican presidential nominee — made two appearances in the area to raise both funds and his political profile, especially since media attention remains glued on his two Democratic rivals who've been determinedly wooing voters in the Keystone state.
"I understand that you have a very heated race on the other side, and that's going to get a lot of attention," acknowledged McCain, during a March 14 press conference following a campaign event in Delaware County.
McCain's concern is not about how he'll fare in the now-meaningless Pennsylvania Republican primary. Instead, he's clearly looking forward to the general election and is hoping to be the first GOP presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988 to carry the state.
"But I intend to campaign hard. I intend to go all over the state having some town meetings. I'm going to try and have as much interface and encounters with the voters as I possibly can," said McCain.
He's trying to use this time to catch up in fundraising; to date, he's pulled in just shy of $54 million while U.S. Sen. Barrack Obama (D-Ill.) has raised more than $138 million and U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) more than $134 million. To help fill his war chest, a group of individuals affiliated with the campaign, including several Jewish supporters, staged a March 13 Philadelphia fundraiser for McCain at the Rittenhouse Hotel.
"Every dollar he raises he keeps. By the time [Clinton and Obama] finish beating each other up, as much as they are raising, they are going to spend it all," said Ken Davis, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Committee.
Davis, like many other Jewish Republicans, initially supported former Mayor Rudy Giuliani before his presidential aspirations tanked.
Shoring up support among Jewish Republicans and independents has been far from guaranteed for McCain.
First, unlike Giuliani, McCain is pro-life, which puts him at odds with most Jews, even Jewish Republicans. On the other hand, his image as a maverick and his moderate position on immigration, as well as his support for stem cell research, might make him attractive to centrists.
Jewish outreach has been somewhat hampered by the interview McCain did with Beliefnet.com last fall, in which he appeared to affirm the notion that America is a Christian nation. He's also been dogged by his reluctance to distance himself from Pastor John Hagee, who has endorsed McCain, and in the past has made remarks considered offensive to both Jews and Catholics.
But Steven Friedman, co-chair of the Philadelphia chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition, who also initially supported Giuliani, but helped to coordinate the McCain fundraiser, said the senator's status as a war hero and his pro-Israel bonafides make him an easy candidate for Jews to unite behind.
Stephen Harmelin, another organizer of the fundraiser, one who's backed McCain from the start, said he sees the candidate "as a combination of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. He has the same elements of Truman honesty and Eisenhower experience on national defense."
Another Jewish Republican, former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Sandra Schultz Newman, who practices law in Conshohocken, said the current political climate, with Obama and Clinton trading harsh barbs, helps the Arizona senator.
"Democrats shouldn't be calling each other names. That's why God invented Republicans," said Newman, who's been affiliated with the GOP since before Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign. Newman noted that she's backing McCain largely based on the recommendation of former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a longtime friend.
"There is no candidate that I will be with all the way on every single issue, but he fits my mold the best," she said.
The morning after the Center City fundraiser, McCain held a "town hall" event at the Springfield Country Club. This was the 35th anniversary of his release from a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, and McCain addressed a standing-room-only crowd of as many as 1,000 people, with a floor-to-ceiling American flag providing a backdrop.
He railed against pork-barrel spending one day after a majority of senators voted down a moratorium on earmarks (that is, funding inserted into bills anonymously). He pledged to be a pro-business steward of the economy and to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, something he once opposed.
"I believe our economic future is bright," McCain said in his speech. "[But] pork-barrel spending is out of control, and we need to make it stop."
While much of the speech focused on domestic issues, he also touched on his commitment to a continued military presence in Iraq and an American foreign policy willing to confront radical Islam. (If made president, he promised that U.S. forces would capture Osama Bin Laden.)
In a post-event session with reporters, McCain was asked about his planned March 18 visit to Israel and his meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
McCain said the trip wasn't about presidential politics, that he was carrying out his work as a member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. He's being accompanied on the trip by U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) — a McCain backer and potential point man in the Jewish community — and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
"Obviously, we know that the situation has been very difficult with rocket attacks and Israeli movement into Gaza," said McCain. "Things are in a very difficult situation in Israel vis-à-vis Palestinian issues, and I intend to get updated on those issues."