Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that what sets him apart from others in the Republican presidential field is his "commitment to reform" education, taxes, the military and campaign finances, as he challenged Texas Gov. George W. Bush to offer a more specific blueprint of how he would govern the country.

McCain said he doesn't know enough about Bush's positions to point out significant differences yet, but suggested he would label Bush a defender of the status quo by raising the issue of Bush's support for federal subsidies for ethanol -- an issue important to Iowa voters.

"I'm opposed to ethanol subsidies because I don't think it helps either the consumer or the environment," McCain told reporters and editors of The Washington Post yesterday. "How can you justify that subsidy, and if you do, do you support sugar subsidies and all these other subsidies?"

In the hour-long interview, McCain talked tough on Iraq and spoke at length about the need to reform and restructure the military. McCain, a third-generation Naval Academy graduate, even went so far as to warn young people to think twice before pursuing a military career because of low pay, inadequate housing and lack of respect from the American people.

"As much as I hate to say it, and as proud as I would be to have a son or daughter of mine in the military, I would certainly question the feasibility or desirability of a career in the military today, given the situation of the military as it exists," he said.

McCain said he believes the Republican nomination fight is far from over and predicted that GOP front-runner Bush will come in for closer scrutiny as the primary season nears.

But even as one of the leading advocates of campaign finance reform, he refrained from any sharp criticism of Bush for raising a record $37 million so far this year or for deciding to reject federal matching funds in order to spend as much as he likes to win the nomination.

McCain said Bush's decision to forgo matching funds was "understandable" given how GOP candidate Steve Forbes had used his personal wealth to attack 1996 GOP nominee Robert J. Dole. "It's understandable, but it's regrettable," McCain said.

The Arizona senator said Bush was correct to reverse a decision to use $43,500 in so-called soft money to pay for space at an upcoming straw poll hosted by the Iowa Republican Party, calling it "an obvious violation in the law." The Bush campaign contends it was not a violation, but decided to use federally regulated money to pay for the space anyway.

McCain was questioned about raising money for his presidential campaign from individuals in the telecommunications industry when he chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the industry. "I know of no one who has ever believed I have been influenced by a $1,000 check," he said.

Asked how he expected to win passage of campaign finance reform as president given his lack of success so far as a senator, McCain said the bully pulpit of the White House would give him the power to get the job done. He also said he would veto pork barrel legislation and use the president's weekly radio address to single out members of Congress who support such projects.

On foreign policy issues, McCain advocated tougher policies toward Iraq and its President Saddam Hussein.

"I would probably pursue vigorously this effort to overthrow the regime, recognizing that it is the most difficult of all military feats to accomplish," he said. "I would vigorously pursue [helping] opposition forces within Iraq and outside of Iraq who are trying to overthrow this government."

And if there were further evidence that Saddam Hussein was attempting to develop weapons of mass destruction, McCain said, "I would come in very hard. I would make it very, very expensive for him to continue those efforts if there was concrete evidence of him doing so."