Past Democratic Party leaders tell The Hill that John McCain negotiated for two months with them to abandon the Republican Party at around the same time that Jim Jeffords crossed the aisle. Tom Daschle and Tom Downey told Bob Cusack that unlike their efforts with Jeffords and Lincoln Chafee, McCain's top aide came to them:
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was close to leaving the Republican Party in 2001, weeks before then-Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.) famously announced his decision to become an Independent, according to former Democratic lawmakers who say they were involved in the discussions.
In interviews with The Hill this month, former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and ex-Rep. Tom Downey (D-N.Y.) said there were nearly two months of talks with the maverick lawmaker following an approach by John Weaver, McCain’s chief political strategist.
Democrats had contacted Jeffords and then-Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) in the early months of 2001 about switching parties, but in McCain’s case, they said, it was McCain’s top strategist who came to them. ...
Daschle said that throughout April and May of 2001, he and McCain “had meetings and conversations on the floor and in his office, I think in mine as well, about how we would do it, what the conditions would be. We talked about committees and his seniority … [A lot of issues] were on the table.”
John McCain denies this charge, saying that he never considered leaving the GOP. John Weaver also refutes the notion that he proposed a switch in allegiance to Downey, saying that their chats amounted to nothing more than idle gossip about the Democrats' efforts to find a turncoat. Mark Salter, McCain's chief of staff then and a key member of his campaign staff now, also categorically and emphatically denies it.
This story sounds a bit strange, even if McCain has done his best to look like a Democrat at times. If McCain came to Daschle, one would have to imagine that Daschle would have closed the deal immediately. The once and future Senate Majority Leader would have offered a senior Republican like McCain almost anything he wanted to jump ship - even after Jeffords bailed. With the kind of interest reported by The Hill, McCain sounds as if the right deal would have cinched it for the Democrats.
McCain had his opportunity later as well. Recall the flirtation from John Kerry and the Democrats in 2004 about McCain serving as his running mate? If he had that kind of inclination in 2001, he would have found that sotto voce offer too tempting to refuse. Instead, McCain scotched the rumors and campaigned for George Bush and many other Republican candidates in the 2004 election.
However, there is another independent, if indirect, corroboration. Cusack reports that Chafee was another live target of this recruiting effort at the time -- and Chafee confirmed it to Cusack. Also, John Edwards reportedly played a key role in the negotiations with McCain, and The Hill confirmed it with an anonymous source "close to Edwards".
If true, this would effectively end McCain's presidential bid. He already has trust issues with Republicans, and this will do nothing but cause them to reject him entirely. However, the people who sourced this story have plenty of motivation to derail McCain, including Edwards, who thinks he may run against McCain in the general election. The principals tell completely conflicting stories, and the nature of the issue almost ensures that no independent proof one way or the other could exist. I'm betting this is nonsense.
UPDATE: Allahpundit puts more credence in it than I do, making the good point that if it were just a smear, they would have waited until the general election to use it. However, the same would be true if the story is on the level. Why talk about this now in either case? It almost seems like someone couldn't wait to spill the beans -- and that does give some weight to the story.