McCain in trouble with conservatives as $35bn aircraft contract goes abroad

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The Independent US

John McCain's awkward honeymoon with US conservatives, which began with his victory in the battle for the Republican presidential nomination, has been soured further after he was blamed for a lucrative air force contract going to a European supplier.

The Arizona senator often speaks of leading an investigation in 2004 that uncovered a bribery scandal that saw Boeing and US Air Force officials go to prison or resign. But his efforts to ensure that the taxpayer gets best value when the US Air Force replaces its fleet of 50-year-old air tankers have come back to haunt him, now that the contract has gone to Airbus rather than Boeing.

The right wing of the Republican Party, already unhappy with Mr McCain as its candidate, blames him for the political fallout from the decision to allow the contract to go overseas.

Right-wing radio talk- show hosts are also fulminating that the largest military procurement contract in US history – worth $35bn (£17.3bn) and expected to rise to $100bn – has been awarded to the French firm. The fact that the aircraft are to be made by a European consortium in partnership with the US firm Northrop and that they will be assembled in Alabama is being largely ignored, as is Boeing's partnership with a Japanese company.

Members of Congress, notably in the swing states of Washington and Missouri, have called for a formal investigation into the bid.

More damaging for Mr McCain is the discovery that members of his campaign team worked as paid lobbyists for Airbus's parent company last year, when it was locked in competition with Boeing for the contract.

Mr McCain's finance chairman, Thomas Loeffler, and Susan Nelson, his finance director, were both lobbyists for Airbus, according to US Senate records. Others, including a former secretary of the navy who is a surrogate for Mr McCain on the campaign trail, also lobbied for the deal.

Mr McCain's spokesman said the senator and his advisers did "nothing improper" and that "John McCain was never personally lobbied on this issue". But congressmen from Kansas and Washington State, where Boeing has large operations, attacked him for losing thousands of jobs to France.

Mr McCain gets an enthusiastic response when he describes how he "saved the taxpayer $6bn in a bogus tanker deal". But now he is having to explain why he sent two letters to the Defence Department asking for the bid to be redrawn to enable Airbus to compete.

"I am concerned that if the Air Force proceeds down its chosen path... it will risk eliminating competition before bids are submitted," he wrote in September 2006. "In my view, this is not in the best interests of either the taxpayer or the warfighter."

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