Elisabeth Bumiller, Queen of the "Neo-Conservative" Label

Bumiller puts John McCain on the defensive in a foreign policy clash of wills, with "pragmatists" and realists on one side and "conservatives" and "neoconservatives" on the other.

Still more anti-McCain bias from reporter Elisabeth Bumiller in a Saturday thumb-sucker, "Bush-McCain Divergence on Foreign Policy Shows in Recent Moves."

Bumillerargued that recent "pragmatic" policy decisions by President Bushonterror sponsors Iran and North Koreahave undercut John McCain by making him look more conservativeon terror than the president (as if that was a bad thing). It's clear from Bumiller's tone and word choice that she had little love for those conservatives, but still uses them to make McCain look as if he's had the rug pulled out from under him.

President Bush and Senator John McCain have long been in agreement on major elements of American foreign policy, particularly in their approach to the "axis of evil" countries of Iran and North Korea, and their commitment to staying the course in Iraq.

But now the administration's agreement to consider a "time horizon" for troop withdrawals from Iraq has moved it, at least in the public perception, in the direction of the policies of Senator Barack Obama. That has thrown Mr. McCain on the political defensive in his opposition to a timed withdrawal, Republicans in the party's foreign party establishment say.

On Friday Mr. McCain went so far as to say that the idea of a 16-month withdrawal, which Mr. Obama supports, was "a pretty good timetable," although he included the caveat that it had to be based on conditions on the ground.

Republicans also say the administration's decision to authorize high-level talks with Iran and North Korea has undercut Mr. McCain's skepticism about engagement with those countries, leaving the perception that he is more conservative than Mr. Bush on the issue.

Essentially, as the administration has taken a more pragmatic approach to foreign policy, the decision of Mr. McCain to adhere to his more hawkish positions illustrates the continuing influence of neoconservatives on his thinking even as they are losing clout within the administration.

Whether the perception of Mr. McCain as being at odds with the administration is politically advantageous for him is a matter of debate among his supporters, but many of his more conservative advisers do not think it is a bad thing.

"There's no doubt, particularly as Bush has adopted policies in the direction of Obama, that that gives Obama bragging rights," said John R. Bolton, the Bush administration's former ambassador to the United Nations, who has sharply criticized the administration's talks with Iran and North Korea. "But if you believe as I do that this administration is in the midst of an intellectual collapse, it doesn't hurt McCain. Occasionally in politics it helps to be right."

But other Republicans - the so-called foreign policy pragmatists, many of whom have come to view the Iraq war as a mistake - say the administration's policy shifts highlight the more confrontational nature of Mr. McCain's foreign policy, particularly in his approach toward Russia and his embrace on Friday of the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese regard as the fomenter of a rebellion in Tibet. They say the meeting will only antagonize China before the Summer Olympics, and at a moment when the United States is seeking its cooperation on economic issues and negotiations with North Korea.

Also, according to Bumiller, John Bolton is not just a conservative but a dreaded neoconservative (Bolton adamantly eschewed the label in a colorful interview with a hostile liberal BBC radio host last year). Bumiller evidently can spot a neoconservative at 100 paces, judging by the impressive bulk of her collection. Bumiller probably employs the "neocon" label - now an all-purpose liberal expletive meaning either Jewish conservative, pro-war conservative, or really really conservative- more than any other Times reporter.

Mr. McCain's campaign continues to be a microcosm of the ongoing Republican foreign policy battles between the pragmatists and the neoconservatives like Mr. Bolton, and it is still not clear where the balance of power lies within Mr. McCain's inner circle. So far, however, the divide between the two within the campaign does not appear as deep as it did within the Bush White House, and advisers say Mr. McCain has been able to chose when there is a policy difference.

Mr. McCain's advisers were divided, for example, over a speech he gave on nuclear security policy in Denver in May. Two Republican pragmatists who advise Mr. McCain, the former secretaries of state Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz, supported a call in the speech for a nuclear-free world, an idea they endorse as part of a "Gang of Four" of national security statesmen. But other McCain advisers, including John F. Lehman, a former Navy secretary, and Fred C. Ikle, a defense official in the Reagan administration, were opposed to the idea because, in their view, nuclear weapons act as a deterrent against an attack on the United States and its allies. In the end, Mr. Lehman said, Mr. McCain made the call in favor of a nuclear-free world.

"He wanted to do it," Mr. Lehman said. "That position is McCain's position. It's not a cabal of Kissingerites or a cabal of neo-cons."

But some of Mr. McCain's pragmatist advisers remain uneasy that conservatives close to Mr. McCain - among them Mr. Scheunemann and Robert Kagan, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - will help him mold a more bellicose message than they would like on Iran and its threat to Israel, particularly at a time when there is widespread speculation in the Israeli news media that Israeli may bomb Iran's nuclear facilities.