My dentist, an acknowledged political agnostic, confessed last week that she is about to contribute money to John McCain. Two days later, another woman told me at a party that she is about to do the same thing--her first-ever contribution to a Republican. Before I am out the door at the same event, someone else admits to a crush on McCain. This one is a longtime Democratic activist. He swears me to secrecy.

By now I am used to such things. My colleagues in the news biz are forever declaring their admiration for the man--both privately and in print. They find him attractive because he is, among other things, authentic. I would scoff, but I am one of them. I am already on record as liking John McCain.

The McCain pandemic is underway. It's not just that he's suddenly ahead of George W. Bush in New Hampshire; his professed support--at least what I'm hearing--is coming from people who are hardly his ideological soul mates. Even in the press corps, he gets raves from traditional liberals. If anything, it's conservatives who oppose him. Yet the right is where McCain has been all his political life.

Take, for instance, abortion. McCain is against it. (He voted to override President Clinton's veto of the bill to prohibit late-term abortions.) He's substantially against gun control, still opposes the transfer of the Panama Canal to Panama and would not give a dime of the government's money to the arts. When I point this out to some of the newly infatuated, they nod and say they like him anyway. I know, I always add, so do I.

But I am troubled by McCain and what he represents. The people I've heard from are not exactly poor. If they need to, they'll figure out a way to get an abortion. They don't live in neighborhoods where guns are a real problem. They pay their own way when it comes to the arts. In these and other ways, government has become somewhat irrelevant. They can afford to focus on "authenticity."

But what about others? In 1998 the number of Americans without health insurance increased by 1 million. It's now 44.3 million, a quarter of them children. In eight states, the proportion of people without insurance fell. In 16, it rose. What do we do about the uninsured?

Bill Bradley has a health insurance program. Al Gore has one, too. They argue about whose is better, but they at least share the same concern. This is true also of gay rights and other progressive social issues. McCain's no bigot, no gay-basher, but "don't ask, don't tell" is all right with him. Not with me, though. It's a craven endorsement of bigotry.

McCain's people whisper, Don't worry. He's not really so anti-abortion. He'll come around on gay rights, gun control and almost anything else you can name. He's a reasonable man--big-hearted, too. Check out what he's done for American Indians. Yes, his record is admirable. Yet it is George W. Bush who talks about "compassion" and reaches out to minorities. His reward? Scorn from Democrats.

Is McCain the first real post-Cold War, post-ideological candidate? Is he the guy who can appeal both to the middle and the affluent--people who rely on no government program and no longer fear a nuclear showdown? These are the people who cannot really be hurt by a flat tax or some similar scheme and who no longer look to politicians for either jobs or welfare. They seek something else instead: a genuineness and a sense of purpose.

McCain has those attributes in spades. He is the anti-Clinton, nothing slick about him. While Clinton gravitates to the most votes, McCain sticks on principle. Before he can please anyone else, he must please himself. This, to say the least, is refreshing.

But even in a cyberworld of Internet this and dot.com that, of general affluence and unimaginable wealth, many Americans still do stoop labor and live in hovels, have no insurance and attend schools that stink, fear the gangs and sometimes the cops too, work two jobs and have a third as a parent, and die--as too often happens in the nation's capital--of the blithe indifference of their indolent caretakers.

I would like to hear McCain talk more about these people and their problems. I want to see him in the inner city and in rural hovels--and at work with a single mom whose kid, ominously, has the sniffles. I realize that he's running for the Republican presidential nomination and he's a conservative to boot. But authenticity isn't everything. After all, the poor are authentic, too.