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They also point to his position on the Iraq war as evidence of his independence, saying that although he voted with the president to authorize the war, he subsequently criticized its handling and got out ahead of the White House on the need for an increase in troop levels.

“John McCain has consistently shown that he puts our country first, and that he’ll buck conventional-Washington to use the best ideas of both parties to find solutions that work,” Tucker Bounds, a McCain campaign spokesman, wrote in an e-mail.

Former Republican Representative Jim Leach of Iowa, who is now the director of the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, argued that the very notion that Mr. McCain needed to be a maverick was flawed.

“A president should not be a maverick,” said Mr. Leach, who lost his seat during the purging of moderate Republicans from the party. “A president should be a person of independent judgment. So a person would more reasonably have to say, ‘If he has shifted ground on any issue, has it been done on a credible, thoughtful basis?’ That is the bigger issue. I can’t tell you that I have agreed with him on various shifts, but that is an individual thing. I don’t want to suggest that it isn’t a respectful thing for an individual to shift at times in life.”

Alternately, Representative Chris Shays of Connecticut, Mr. McCain’s counterpart in the House in pushing for campaign finance reform, argued that Mr. McCain’s movement on issues is exactly what made him a maverick, because it demonstrated his willingness to change with the demands of the day and avoid ideological rigidity.

“He’s got to envelop a national view,” said Mr. Shays. “What John is doing is vintage John, and that is the consistency of John McCain, and that is going out to community meetings and listening to what people are telling him, and adjusting his position based on what they are telling him. And being willing to frankly piss people off in the process … This is a guy who goes to groups and says, ‘I’m not with you.’ If he starts going to every group to say, ‘I’m with you,’ he’s going to lose the election.”

At the suggestion that Mr. McCain had abandoned his independent streak, Mr. Shays reacted by comparing his evolution to some recent actions of Mr. Obama that have been at odds with the notion of a new sort of politician: his opt-out of the public finance system; his grudging termination of vice presidential vetter Jim Johnson for having business ties that directly undercut Mr. Obama’s influence-free message; and Mr. Obama’s own political ties to the ethanol industry, which stands to profit from his support for renewable-fuel subsidies.

“Barack Obama has talked about how we need to come together, Republicans and Democrats,” said Mr. Shays. “Well, coming together doesn’t mean that we all come to him. He has to come to us. And we’re in the center.”

(Asked for a response to this story, Obama campaign spokesman Hari Sevugan wrote in an e-mail, “Barack Obama has taken unprecedented steps to address the problem of money in politics by not accepting contributions from PACs or Washington lobbyists, those raised by Washington lobbyists, and asking the DNC to abide by the same guidelines – all steps that John McCain has been unwilling to take despite his supposed commitment to reform.”)

Still, some moderate Republicans who applauded Mr. McCain’s past rebelliousness in the Senate are not entirely sure what to make of him now.

Sherwood Boehlert, a former Republican congressman from New York who once led a Congressional delegation with Mr. McCain to Antarctica to study the effects of climate change, said, “He has been and will be a maverick on some issues, not all issues.”

Mr. McCain’s decision to change his position on offshore drilling, Mr. Boehlert said, must have had less to do with pandering to the oil lobby, or appealing to voters struggling with a $4 gallon of gas, than with “incomplete information.”

“My concern is that within the inner circle of the campaign organization, I’m not sure that there are enough people well informed on environmental issues,” said Mr. Boehlert, who retired in 2007. “I’m not sure they are well informed or are giving him proper advice. Now that he has adjusted
his position on that, it imposes an obligation on us, who think he made the incorrect decision, to give him more information.”

Mr. Boehlert added: “I can understand there might some concern that he is making too many adjustments, and is trying too hard to fine-tune his positions on certain issues in order to appeal to a certain element, but his reputation is not tarnished.”

jhorowitz@observer.com

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