For all the national attention surrounding John McCain’s two highly anticipated, protest-ridden commencement speeches in New York last week, the Senator actually saved some of his best material for the crowd that gathered on Friday behind closed doors in the back of the Regency Hotel.
In a small, mirror-paneled room guarded by a Secret Service agent and packed with some of the city’s wealthiest and most influential political donors, Mr. McCain got right to the point.
“One of the things I would do if I were President would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, ‘Stop the bullshit,’” said Mr. McCain, according to Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi, an invitee, and two other guests.
The exclusive audience included R.N.C. finance chair Lewis Eisenberg, Blackstone Group co-founder Peter G. Peterson, former Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman and Gail Hilson, the politically influential socialite who has organized events for Mr. McCain in the past.
“What kind of a country do we want to be?” Mr. McCain asked his audience, walking around in the middle of a horseshoe-shaped table as he proceeded to answer his own question.
He cautioned against ghettoizing immigrants, which he noted has brought about disastrous results in France, and criticized elements in his own party as “nativist” before lambasting the punditry of Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs and Michael Savage for helping to “fuel the problem,” according to two of the sources.
And Mr. McCain, a Vietnam War hero and strong supporter of the invasion of Iraq, criticized the Bush administration’s lack of candor about the current situation there.
Mr. McCain’s 90 minutes of casual, off-the-cuff remarks about a broad range of issues, from foreign policy and economics to corruption and immigration, seemed to have the desired effect.
“He was fantastic,” said Ms. DioGuardi, the wife of former Republican U.S. Representative Joseph DioGuardi, who was also in attendance. “His appeal is that he is definitely a man of integrity. He has a vision for what should happen to this country.”
It was something of a test run for Mr. McCain, whose visit to New York was a fair representation of the state of his still-undeclared 2008 Presidential campaign.
On the surface, he was making a pilgrimage, graduation cap in hand, to claim a share of the country’s most high-profile stage. He weathered rain and protests at Columbia University on Wednesday and took his lumps from a heckling crowd at the New School’s commencement on Friday. And that public portion of his schedule could hardly have been better scripted for the purpose of winning a Republican Presidential primary: The war hero comes to New York and calls for civility in the face of the howls and catcalls of liberal protesters.
But national politicians, especially Republican ones, don’t come to New York to win votes—they do so to win friends, influence and campaign cash. Mr. McCain’s private pitch, in many ways, was the more important one to his current mission—and the more telling about what he is trying to accomplish.
“Right now it’s all about money, money and money,” said Jennifer E. Duffy, managing editor and political analyst for The Cook Political Report, when asked about Mr. McCain’s recent forays.
To that end, Mr. McCain will have to hope that supporters like Ms. Hilson—who regularly sends notes to well-heeled acquaintances alerting them to his New York visits and has thrown several parties for him at the “21” Club—are broadly representative of opinion among New York’s Republican-minded elite.
After all, Mr. McCain is far from alone in trying to appeal to the hearts and minds of this elite group of bundlers and opinion-makers. New York, it hardly needs to be said, is home to one Rudolph Giuliani, who is very much in competition for the designated patriotic-icon slot in the Republican field.
According to some experts, there is also the important symbolic significance of Mr. McCain’s incursions into New York: They have brought him squarely onto the turf of Hillary Clinton, whose own unannounced Presidential ambitions at times eclipse all other political stories put together.
“He has made these forays into Clinton country before, but the subtlety here is him saying, ‘I will take you on in your home court,’” said Ms. Duffy.
Not that Mr. McCain has had any trouble making himself at home here, public protests notwithstanding. He has already established a sophisticated fund-raising and outreach operation spearheaded by Mark Miller, the former executive director of Republican Leadership Council, and Tamara Hallisey-Hatfield, who has raised money for both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and is now employed by Mr. McCain’s political-action committee, Straight Talk America.
And they are not scaling back expectations just because they’re based in one of the capitals of liberal America—people in the McCain camp actually expect to have raised about $1 million in New York by midsummer. (Mr. McCain hauled in $800,000 at a single New York fund-raiser last November.)
Although Mr. McCain’s positions on social issues are unmistakably conservative—notably on abortion and gay rights—he is once again presenting himself, as he did during his first Presidential run, as the straight-talking political independent who stands for principles that transcend traditional notions of left and right.
And given his position at the top of the national polls of prospective Presidential candidates—along with Mr. Giuliani and Mrs. Clinton—he still appears to have the ability to appeal to an ideologically diverse audience.
It is in this context that he made his decision to accept an invitation to talk to a largely left-leaning audience from the New School, delivering an address that served as the accompanying bookend to a nearly identical speech he gave earlier at the Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.
On the afternoon of the New School graduation, the foul mood was established well before Mr. McCain waded into a sea of hostility at the Madison Square Garden venue. Anti-war protesters marched outside waving signs that called him a “pimp of war,” among other things.
Despite the best efforts of New School president Bob Kerrey to diffuse the situation inside the building, Mr. McCain was by turns booed and heckled and, at one point, was criticized by a student who had been scheduled to sing a song and deliver a benign set of remarks.
Eventually, Mr. McCain got through his address, a political speech that called for respecting the opinions of others and urged that in times of crisis, “we fight among ourselves for the things we believe in.”
But it was a measure of the tension in the room that Mr. Kerrey actually saw fit to refer to Mr. McCain’s performance as an act of bravery.
One of the few kind words for Mr. McCain, in fact, came from the student who’d criticized him, delivered as the two walked off the stage after the ceremony.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that … ,” began the student, Jean Sara Rohe.
“It’s O.K.,” the Senator said.
But it was earlier in the day, in front of the invited, mostly Republican crowd at the Regency, that Mr. McCain found himself much more in his element.
“He’s a very able, honorable man who is obviously involved in the key issues of our time,” said Donald B. Marron, the C.E.O. of Lightyear Capital and a former chairman of UBS America, in an interview outside the gathering.
In a small room lined with mirrors, men in suits and women in pearls chatted under a glass chandelier as they waited for Mr. McCain to arrive. The Senator was running an hour and a half late, and Ms. Hallisey-Hatfield, an energetic blonde with black-framed glasses, paced the halls, asking, “Where are they?”
When Mr. McCain finally showed up at 11:20, wearing a blue tie and brushing some raindrops off the shoulders of his dark suit, he looked flustered. But he quickly threw himself into the affair, leaving the Secret Service agents who accompanied him into the hotel to hang back as he stepped forward and began shaking hands. He read people’s names off the nametags stuck to their lapels and greeted them with smiles.
After 15 minutes of pleasantries, Mr. McCain and the guests retired to the bar room, where he briefed them on his political positions and vision for the country. Outside the door, a Secret Service agent patrolled the room, pacing over the floral carpet, checking his reflection in the mirror and whispering into a cell phone. On a white tablecloth in the room’s corner sat the nametags of no-shows, including Georgette Mosbacher, a major Republican fund-raiser, Joseph L. Rice III, the chairman of the private investment firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, and Michael Fedak, who is on the publication committee of the conservative City Journal.
After an hour, the guests filed out, returning to their idling white limousines. While Mr. McCain grabbed a bite to eat at Feinstein’s, Ms. DioGuardi and two other donors in expensive suits walked along 61st Street holding blue folders filled with invites to a planned New York fund-raiser for Mr. McCain scheduled for June 12.
Mr. McCain’s longstanding supporters in the room hailed the attendance list, which included some Democratic names, as a demonstration of his diverse appeal.
“Among the conservative Democrats who are not supporting Hillary Clinton in New York, John appears to be the one that they like. The liberal Republicans seem to be doing the same thing,” said Ms. Mosbacher, a past supporter of Mr. McCain who was invited to Friday’s breakfast but did not attend. “If he is going to be a serious Presidential candidate, he is going to have to raise a lot of money, and New York is a very important place to raise money.”
“I have never seen Democrats flock to a Republican candidate like they did to McCain,” said Guy Molinari, the former Staten Island Borough President who split with the state party to chair Mr. McCain’s New York campaign in 2000. “I think he’ll do very well in New York.”
But that’s by no means a given, even among Republicans.
Mr. McCain enters a city where the role of tough-talking, straight-shooting Republican has already been cast.
Mr. Giuliani has parlayed his performance during 9/11 into national prominence and now consistently joins his Republican colleague from Arizona atop the polls. If Mr. Giuliani opts to run for President—and his recent trip down to Georgia to campaign with Ralph Reed, a candidate for lieutenant governor and former leader of the Christian Coalition, strongly suggests that he has—Mr. McCain will have a tougher time binding his name to the title of American hero. A Giuliani candidacy not only steals some of the gloss from Mr. McCain’s image, it also diverts money from his wallet.
A day after Mr. McCain is scheduled to hit up donors for money in June, for example, Mr. Giuliani is planning to counter with a high-rollers-only event of his own.
Mr. Molinari, one of Mr. McCain’s most enthusiastic supporters, said that he’d have to wait to see what “my friend Rudy does” before he could even think of endorsing Mr. McCain.
For now, it’s all academic for Mr. McCain, whose official line is that he will make a decision about whether to run for President after the midterm elections this fall.
But his New York friends, apparently, are ahead of him.
“Everyone knows that John McCain is running for President,” said Ms. Hilson, the pearl-wearing Upper East Sider who was a delegate for Mr. McCain in 2000. “John McCain is the most popular candidate in the country.”