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McCain runs the gauntlet of far-right critics

Wherever John McCain goes these days he is sure to run into protesters.

In South Carolina, many wield the battle flag of the Confederacy, protesting that the symbol of the state's racist past no longer flies proudly over their statehouse in Columbia. Three protesters lay in wait for him yesterday at a rally at his campaign headquarters.

But the senator from Arizona, who won the New Hampshire primary last week only to be beaten by Mitt Romney on Tuesday in Michigan, is well used to being attacked, especially by his own side.

Mr McCain, 71, is intensely disliked by hard core Republicans who have been at the receiving end of his sharp tongue. But the avuncular senator from Arizona is no moderate, as can be seen by his enthusiasm for the war in Iraq and other American military adventures.

The protests he attracts are almost all from right- wing conservatives, however. In South Carolina, which votes tomorrow, they compose a motley crew of confederacy nostalgics, right-to-lifers and the sharp end of the anti-immigrant movement.

Yesterday his arrival at his headquarters in downtown Columbia was spoiled by the interruptions of Steve Lefemine who had a dual message to deliver. Not only was Senator McCain not sufficiently pro-life, but also he was a member of the august body, the Council on Foreign Relations.

'They want to submerge our nation into a socialist, one-world government,' Mr Lefemine said to anyone who would listen.

Another protester, Robert Shoemaker, a retired economist, had travelled from Virginia to attack the senator over his supposed weakness for proposing amnesty status for the 12 million illegal immigrants in America. He is part of a hit squad calling itself the "Amnesty Truth Express" which has condemned as "catastrophic" Mr McCain's proposals for comprehensive immigration reform.

Far-right sympathisers with the old Confederacy have also been dogging McCain campaign appearances, waving flags and denouncing him. They want to see the confederate battle flag flying defiantly over the dome of the state capitol once again.

After enormous protests in 2000 as Mr McCain was waging a losing battle in South Carolina against George Bush, the flag was finally removed from atop the building. It did not go very far and could be seen flying in the breeze on statehouse grounds yesterday.

Mr McCain brushed aside the protests over the confederate flag, saying he "could not be more proud of the majority of the people of this state" who agreed that it should be removed from atop the statehouse.

"I believe the issue has been resolved in the minds of the overwhelming majority of the people of South Carolina," Mr McCain said.

He has often squabbled with the conservative establishment, denouncing the Christian conservatives Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "agents of intolerance", and vigorously protesting about the torture of US captives in Guantanamo and elsewhere.

In South Carolina, he is looking for support from the state's large military presence. He is the only major candidate who served with the US military, when he was a navy pilot conducting bombing runs over Vietnam.