“John McCain is a conservative,” Pawlenty told me. “Now, there are some particular issues that have disappointed conservatives. He acknowledges that, and he has got some work to do to convince and reassure people that he is in fact a conservative…. But if you look at the totality of his record over the total time he’s been in Congress, it would seem to be unfair and incomplete to label him as something other than a conservative. And if the definition of conservative is going to be so narrowly construed as to only be those things to the right of John McCain, we’re going to have a fairly narrow market share.”
Going into the 2000 election we were repeatedly assured that George W Bush was a real conservative. That proved to be a pile of dung. The truth is that both McCain and GW hold a variety of beliefs that have nothing to do with traditional ideologies, or for that matter any kind of organized political thought, and everything to do with personal values that drive what policies they will back. For GW, it was "compassion". For McCain it appears to be "honor".
The idea that McCain is some kind of flaming liberal no different than Hillary or Obama is plainly nuts. But the idea that he's a conservative is batty as well. McCain will choose policies based on what he believes is right and honorable and from what I can tell the only time he ever stops to consider whether those ideas are in any way related to conservatism is when he's trying to convince conservatives he can be trusted. Since he only cares about convincing us when he's running for president, I don't think he gives it any thought very often.