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The McCain Phenomenon

By David S. Broder
Tuesday, August 31, 2004; Page A21

NEW YORK -- This is, of course, George Bush's week, the time that he is formally confirmed in his candidacy for a second term as president. But Bush is staying away from the Republican National Convention until Thursday, and in his absence, the man of the hour is Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

In addition to his prime-time speech to the opening session on Monday night, McCain hosted a Sunday dinner that attracted nearly every big-foot TV and print journalist in the United States. This week, he is doing five editorial boards and four morning television shows -- and campaigning all day today with Bush.

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The McCain phenomenon is remarkable. Rarely in modern political history has a man who failed to win the nomination of his party in one election loomed so large on the national stage in the next election.

Richard Nixon was a key player in national Republican campaigns for 20 years, from 1952 through 1972. Adlai Stevenson dominated the Democratic scene in 1952 and again in 1956, and was a serious contender for a third time at the Los Angeles convention that nominated John Kennedy in 1960.

But Nixon and Stevenson -- like Hubert Humphrey and the first George Bush -- all won places on the national ticket as a prelude to their continuing influence on their parties.

By contrast, McCain captured only a handful of primaries in 2000 and fell far short of derailing the current president's march to victory. The closest parallel to McCain's achievement can be found in Ronald Reagan, who threw a real scare into President Gerald Ford in 1976 and came back to win the nomination and the presidency in 1980.

But McCain's political achievement is more stunning than Reagan's in two respects. Reagan was able to return in 1980 because Ford had lost in 1976, leaving the leadership of the Republican Party wide open. And McCain, despite his defeat in 2000, has emerged as the most-courted, most-quoted politician -- not just by Republicans but by Democrats as well.

If there has ever been a time when the same officeholder has been pictured and cited in ads by both major-party candidates, I cannot remember it. But John Kerry was using McCain to bolster his case against Bush (until McCain asked him to scrap those ads) at the same time Bush was recruiting the Arizona senator to campaign with him. Both apparently think McCain has some magic dust that might rub off on them.

Kerry reportedly sounded out McCain on the possibility of forming a "national unity" ticket, with McCain in the No. 2 spot. Polls showed that if Vice President Cheney stepped down, McCain would be the most popular choice to replace him as Bush's running mate.

McCain, a realist, said consistently all through this crazy year that neither of those things was going to happen -- and he was right. In an interview last week with The Post, he seemed more bemused than inflated to find himself the object of so many politicians' desire.

How to explain this phenomenon? The answer has to lie in McCain's success in satisfying the widespread public hunger for authenticity and candor in political leaders. The name he gave his campaign bus in 2000, "The Straight Talk Express," perfectly captured what voters now see in him -- the rare Washington official who says what he thinks and lets the chips fall where they may.

The current political situation puts a severe strain on McCain's ability to do that. But he is struggling manfully to keep various overlapping and conflicting roles straight -- without contradicting himself.

On the subject of Kerry, he says that the senator's Vietnam combat service was nothing but honorable and should not be criticized. He defends Kerry as a serious senator but says frankly that he disagrees with his vote against funding the Iraq war -- and on other security issues over the years.

When it comes to Bush, the parsing becomes even more refined. He has argued publicly that Bush should repudiate the ads critical of Kerry's wartime service, but he says that is not important enough to cause him to consider threatening to withdraw his endorsement of Bush. He disagrees with Bush's tax policies and is critical of the strategy in Iraq, but he says that Bush is right to treat terrorism as the main threat to the nation.

While threading his way through this labyrinth of issues and pressures, McCain also manages to preserve for himself the role of umpire on disputes involving campaign financing, federal "pork barrel" spending and other reform issues.

It is a balancing act few could perform. But somehow, John McCain keeps all the balls in the air at once.

I've never seen anything like it.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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