By ADAM NAGOURNEY and MICHAEL COOPER
HUDSON, Wis. – Sen. John McCain in a wide-ranging interview on Friday called for a government that is frugal but more active than many conservatives might prefer. He said government should play an important role in areas like addressing climate change, regulating campaign finance and taking care of “those in America who cannot take care of themselves.”
“I count myself as a conservative Republican, yet I view it to a large degree in the Theodore Roosevelt mold,” McCain said, referring to his reputation for reform, environmentalism and tough foreign policy.
The views expressed by McCain in the 45-minute interview illustrated the challenge the probable Republican presidential nominee faces as he tries to navigate the sensibilities of his party’s conservative base and those of the moderate and independent voters he needs to defeat Sen. Barack Obama, his Democratic rival.
His responses suggested that he was basically in sync with his party’s conservative core but was not always willing to use the power of the federal government to impose those values. He also expressed a willingness to deploy government power and influence where free-market purists might hesitate to do so and to consider unleashing military force for moral reasons.
In recent weeks, McCain has left many Republicans unsettled about his ideological bearings by toggling between reliably conservative issues like support for gun owners’ rights and an emphasis on centrist messages like his willingness to tackle global warming and provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Those tensions were apparent in the interview as well, as McCain offered a variety of answers – sometimes nuanced in their phrasing, sometimes not – about his views on social issues.
McCain, who with his wife, Cindy, has an adopted daughter, said flatly that he opposed allowing gay couples to adopt. “I think that we’ve proven that both parents are important in the success of a family so, no, I don’t believe in gay adoption,” he said.
But he declined to take a specific position when asked whether only evolution should be taught in public schools. “It’s up to the school boards,” he said. “That’s why we have local control over education.” McCain has said he believes in evolution.
Many social conservatives strenuously oppose California’s decision to allow same-sex marriage. But McCain, who also opposes same-sex marriage, has always said that the issue is up to the states, and in the interview he said he would stick to that position as president even if California chose to continue allowing gay marriage after putting the matter to a statewide vote in November. “I respect the right of the states to make those decisions,” he said.
Asked if he considered himself an evangelical Christian, McCain responded, “I consider myself a Christian.”
“I attend church,” he said. “My faith has sustained me in very difficult times.” Asked how often he attended, he responded: “Not as often as I should.” He has recently been photographed going to church as his campaign has begun to make public the times he attends services.
McCain sat down for the interview at the end of a week that his campaign had hoped would mark a turning point in a candidacy that has been plagued with missteps and often seemed unsure of its message. In the course of the interview, conducted after he held a town-hall-style meeting on economic issues, he also made these points:
After a period in which his campaign again endured internal battling and staff upheaval, McCain argued that competing tensions in an organization – be it a presidential campaign or a White House – can be good thing, up to a point.
“Because of the bubble that a president is in, and the bubble that a candidate is in, sometimes you find out afterwards something that, ‘Oh boy, I wish I had heard thus and such and so and so,”’ he said. “So I appreciate and want some of the tension. I don’t want too much of it.”
When asked if he felt that it was more difficult to run against Obama because of the sensitivities of race, McCain responded wryly: “I’d like to make a joke, but I can’t.”
“We are in a situation today where all words are parsed, all comments are diagnosed and looked at for whatever effect they might have,” he said. “We have to feed the beast, the hourly cable shows, the instant news in the blogs and all that. That is just the situation that we’re in, and I’m not complaining about it, because that would be both foolish and a waste of time.”
McCain went on to say that he did not consider running against Obama any more complicated than running against, say, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. “No, I have to base my approach to Sen. Obama as one of respect,” he said. “As long as I do that, then I don’t have to worry about any language I might use.”
McCain said – ruefully – that he had not mastered how to use the Internet and relied on his wife and aides like Mark Salter, a senior adviser, and Brooke Buchanan, his press secretary, to get him online to read newspapers (though he prefers reading those the old-fashion way) and political Web sites and blogs.
“They go on for me,” he said. “I am learning to get online myself, and I will have that down fairly soon, getting on myself. I don’t expect to be a great communicator, I don’t expect to set up my own blog, but I am becoming computer literate to the point where I can get the information that I need.”
Asked which blogs he read, he said: “Brooke and Mark show me Drudge, obviously. Everybody watches, for better or for worse, Drudge. Sometimes I look at Politico. Sometimes RealPolitics.”
At that point, Cindy McCain, who had been intensely engaged with her BlackBerry, looked up and chastised her husband. “Meghan’s blog!” she said, reminding him of their daughter’s blog on his campaign Web site. “Meghan’s blog,” he said sheepishly.
McCain spoke in a room at J&L Steel Erectors in Hudson, Wis., about 30 miles east of Minneapolis, after the meeting with voters. As he answered questions, sipping a cup of coffee with his tie tight around his neck, his aides stared down at their BlackBerries.
As they tapped, McCain said he did not use a BlackBerry, though he regularly reads messages on those of his aides. “I don’t e-mail, I’ve never felt the particular need to e-mail,” McCain said.
The interview underscored the extent to which McCain has defied easy ideological characterization, a fact that might help him in a general election but has been a persistent cause of concern among some conservatives. McCain has long argued that his stances are evidence of his political independence; many of his critics say it is more an example of a politician deftly trying to shade positions to win an election in complicated electoral terrain.
McCain said he believed that the U.S. government had an obligation to intervene to stop genocide, though only if it was clear that a solution was possible. He also said that the Federal Reserve was right to step in during the collapse of the investment firm Bear Stearns, and that he would similarly support some sort of aggressive action to avert a collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the nation’s two largest mortgage finance companies, should that prove necessary.
“I don’t know if a government, quote, bailout is necessary now,” he said. “Because there are other courses of action that are being explored in order to ensure their survival. But I don’t believe we can afford to have them fail, because of their impact on the overall economy.”
Asked to name a conservative model, he skipped over the suggestions of three names typically associated with the conservative movement – Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Barry Goldwater, the founder of the modern-day conservative movement who occupied the Senate seat McCain holds today – to settle on Teddy Roosevelt.
McCain has long admired Roosevelt, and in the interview he identified with him as a fellow reformer and environmentalist and also touched on his assertive foreign policy. The choice might to some extent be an indication of how McCain would like to position himself now that he has moved from the primary to the general election.
“I believe less governance is the best governance, and that government should not do what the free enterprise and private enterprise and individual entrepreneurship and the states can do, but I also believe there is a role for government,” McCain said. He added: “Government should take care of those in America who can not take care of themselves.”© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.