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McCain backers uphold track record

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WASHINGTON - Republican presidential nominee John McCain may have missed opportunities for reaching out to Indian country prior to the Republican National Convention, as both Indian Country Today and Internet-based RezNet can attest. And he may have missed an opportunity to put Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the Northern Cheyenne former senator, before an audience of millions when his campaign failed to confirm his invitation until two days before the event (Campbell was already committed elsewhere).

But in accepting the GOP nomination for president, McCain made a sympathetic mention of tribes to a television audience of a reported 40 million viewers, and his backers continue to insist that no amount of missed opportunities for outreach will signal a strategy of disengagement toward tribes.

;'My hope is that tribal leaders will remember the decades of engagement,'' said Phil Baker-Shenk, the top-drawer lobbyist with Holland & Knight who worked on McCain's staff in 1995 and 1996. ''John McCain has done many tours of duty in Indian country.''

He added that he can't go along with the great oceans of spilled ink that divine a loss of idealism - and by extension the ''maverick'' status that McCain has decided he must have to win over undecided voters - in the longtime congressman. Baker-Shenk said he sees the same man he worked for 12 and 13 years ago.

''He's a man who has always done what he thought was right. ... More than most politicians, he has set a course and stayed with it. What other politician is going to look into the stage lights and lean into the wind - a gale-force wind at the time - and say, 'I'm not going to change'?''

Baker-Shenk was alluding to McCain's increasingly renowned statement that he would rather lose an election than see his country lose a war. At the time, his campaign was sagging, out of money and short on enthusiasm. The issue of the hour was the ''surge'' of troops in Iraq. Baker-Shenk believes that if McCain had taken the more popular position against the surge, his campaign finances would have recovered overnight. Instead, he advocated the pro-surge policy he considered right, and took out loans to keep his campaign going.

Baker-Shenk concluded that if he would stick with an unpopular position when the chips were down, McCain will certainly stand by tribes as he always has.

Jana McKeag, Cherokee co-chair of the American Indians for McCain Coalition, added that if the campaign hasn't reached out to Indian country at every opportunity, it's because there simply haven't been ''enough bodies to do all the work.'' It's typical of a national campaign, she said, as was the late invitation for Campbell to speak.

''Everyone got a last-minute invitation, even if you were Tom Ridge or whoever,'' she said, a reference to the Homeland Security czar from Pennsylvania who was on McCain's short list of potential vice presidents before Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin got the nod. It's not ideal, McKeag agreed. ''But it's a campaign. That's the way campaigns are.''

Notwithstanding all that, she said McCain is a great leader who will make a great president, and a great president for tribes.