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Military culture, pragmatism shape McCain

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By the time McCain arrived in Washington, his personal life was in transition. His marriage was already falling apart – McCain accepts the blame – when he met and fell for the young, beautiful daughter of a wealthy businessman from Phoenix. In early 1981, McCain retired from the Navy, and he and his new wife, Cindy, settled in Arizona. As if by design, the congressman from the district near Phoenix suddenly retired, and McCain won the seat. Four years later, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater – the godfather of Republican conservatism, whom McCain had gotten to know during his Navy liaison days – retired and McCain easily succeeded him.

In McCain's House and early Senate years, conservatives considered him "an upcoming conservative hero and a conservative stalwart in Congress," says David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU). Then in the late 1990s, McCain began to "move left," Mr. Keene says.

While McCain's lifetime ACU rating of 82 percent puts him within the conservative range (defined as 80 or above), that masks his annual scores of the past 10 years, which routinely dipped below 80, sometimes into the 60s. The nonpartisan National Journal magazine, in its member rankings, also found that McCain has moved toward the center since the mid-'90s, when the GOP took control of the Senate. When Mr. Bush became president, having defeated McCain in a contentious nomination battle, hard feelings were evident as McCain voted often against his positions.

McCain's presumptive nomination – made possible only because Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee split the conservative vote – has left some conservatives deeply dissatisfied.

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