Yesterday upon the stair

I met a man who wasn't there.

He wasn't there again today.

I wish that man would go away.

-- Nursery rhyme

John McCain wasn't there and won't, he says, go away. He has a strategy (in poker, does hoping to be dealt four aces constitute a "strategy"?), but one element of it came a cropper in Iowa Saturday night.

Having experienced in Vietnam one mismatch between means and ends, McCain avoided another by skipping Ames's expensive straw poll. Besides, to his credit, he could not match the other candidates' erotic relationships with Iowa's ethanol industry (if such a government-subsidized mendicant can be called an industry).

Unless Iowa checks into a Betty Ford Clinic for the Treatment of Subsidy Addiction, come February McCain may have to skip Iowa's caucuses. Nevertheless, his campaign manager, Rick Davis, who is paid to think positively, thinks his man can still be the last electable challenger to George W. Bush still standing on March 7, when California and a slew of other states have primaries. (Ames dented the assumption that although Steve Forbes could conceivably be nominated, his election is unimaginable.)

Davis remembers sinking $2 million of Bob Dole's money in a Florida straw poll in 1996, and another current McCain campaign operative oversaw Phil Gramm's $850,000 purchase of a tie with Dole in Ames. Davis, a veteran of Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign (and Reagan's White House) and other campaigns, knows, and is comforted by the fact, that there are no certainties about the fast-evolving nominating process.

However, when asked on the eve of Ames what outcome would be optimum for McCain, Davis was concise: "Elizabeth last." Oh, well.

The McCain campaign's hoped-for first ace turned out to be a joker. McCain needs Elizabeth Dole to go away so he can begin portraying himself as the only electable figure opposing Bush. Then McCain can lead the chorus portraying Bush as a creature of Beltway money, the Establishment and other Children of Darkness. Dole has at least delayed the day when McCain can do that.

Had she finished, say, fifth, that day might have been Sunday. By finishing third, she who had the most to lose in Ames won the most. She burnished her credentials as the Republicans' answer to Freud's famous question (What does a woman want?), and hence as a leading contender, if she cannot derail Bush, to be his running mate.

The straw poll, a political dandelion, is growing wildly and this year was a measure of money-power. The two candidates with the most money -- Bush and Forbes -- finished first and second. Bush, with understandable ebullience and therefore forgivable inaccuracy, exclaimed that he had "shattered every record" for the straw poll. Not exactly. The most important record -- highest percentage of the vote won -- is still held by Bush's father, 36 percent in 1979, about five points better than his son did.

The McCain campaign's hope is that he will finish first or second in New Hampshire, then win South Carolina, where military veterans are thick on the ground, and Arizona. By then Bush presumably would have come back to the pack. In fact, McCain would be the pack. And those two -- McCain the Maverick against the Chip Off the Old Establishment -- could have a tidy Armageddon on March 7.

Trouble is, the Establishment did not provoke fear and loathing in Ames, where a son of the most recent Republican president and the wife of the most recent Republican presidential nominee together won 45 percent of the votes. And McCain's maverickness has recently been displayed principally with his tobacco bill (based on the myth that smoking costs government money) and campaign finance reform (based on the premise that government should restrict political communication). So some conservatives are conflicted about McCain, as follows.

A reasonable list of the five worst pieces of legislation in the past 25 years might include the tobacco bill (enrichment of trial lawyers, and hence of the Democratic Party) and campaign reform (evisceration of the First Amendment). However, almost all presidents make a hash of domestic policy, and foreign policy matters most. China may be contemplating military action against Taiwan. India and Pakistan are at nuclear daggers drawn. North Korea is rattling ICBMs. Life is real, life is earnest, and McCain is paying more -- and better -- attention than any other candidate.

That perception is an ace he already has in hand. But perhaps the crucial ace must be dealt by events abroad. So more than most candidates, he cannot control his future. He won't go away, but isn't quite there.