Arizona Sen. John McCain, who skipped the Iowa Republican presidential straw poll and called it a sham, reemerged on the political scene this week with a visit to California and a speech designed to highlight his war hero background before a veterans' group in Kansas City yesterday.

McCain, who has cultivated an image as a political maverick, is considering skipping next year's Iowa caucus altogether, and questions abound whether his strategy of ignoring the state that begins the presidential nominating process will work. This week, McCain's strategy became clearer: Focus heavily on two other early-voting states, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and barnstorm California to emerge as the alternative to Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

McCain interrupted a 10-day swing through California--which will hold its primary earlier than ever, on March 7--to speak to a veterans' group in Kansas City. McCain challenged America's military readiness in a time of increasingly complex challenges to global stability. He also accused Washington politicians of breaking promises on health care to veterans.

"For nearly a decade now, government has failed to meet its most important responsibility--to provide for the common defense," McCain said at the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, where the former Vietnam War hero received an enthusiastic response. Later in the 25-minute speech, he said: "I'm ashamed Congress finds billions of dollars for pork barrel spending on subsidies for reindeer ranches and power plants fueled by chicken waste," but does not fulfill promises to provide veterans with quality health care.

McCain won the endorsement yesterday of Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), who had supported Lamar Alexander. Alexander pulled out of the race Monday after a disappointing finish in the straw poll. Thompson said McCain "has been a key ally in my effort to clean up the campaign finance mess in Washington, and he is a leader who knows that only through reform can we take back our country from the special interests."

Earlier this week, McCain picked up support in South Carolina when several aides to candidate Dan Quayle defected to his campaign after the former vice president finished behind Alexander in the straw poll.

Bucking traditional wisdom that candidates must concentrate on Iowa, McCain is running hard in the mega-delegate state of California--a state his campaign thinks will be receptive to his message and his western roots. McCain must do well there if he is to remain competitive.

"He's trying to position himself as the non-scary Republican, somebody that victory-hungry Republicans can turn to if George W. stumbles," said Jack Pitney, an associate professor of government at California's Claremont McKenna College in Claremont. "That's a message that appeals to Republicans in California who are sick of losing . . . and feel that Republicans have lost because they've come across as mean and divisive."

In a speech before the Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles this week, McCain blamed the "sharp and intolerant" rhetoric in political discourse for creating the atmosphere of intolerance that led to the shootings at a Jewish community center there. This week he also suggested that while he is open to considering some gun control measures, a violence-obsessed media and hate-mongering Internet sites were more to blame for the culture of violence.

In Orange County, McCain said he would introduce legislation to permanently ban Internet sales taxes--a position that pleases California technology gurus but angers local and state governments, which fear the loss of major revenue from burgeoning e-commerce.

An increasingly common theme in McCain's speeches is his assertion that he is not part of the usual Washington partisan politics. This week, he not only has rebuked the Clinton administration on an array of topics from China policy to veterans affairs, but also challenged the GOP-led Congress on everything from military readiness to pork barrel spending and the tone of political discourse.

McCain's opposition to ethanol subsidies--an example, he says, of pork barrel spending--made it unlikely he would do well in Iowa. But aides said he skipped the event to avoid spending precious campaign dollars on "things that have no bearing on the election whatsoever."

"We were able to come out of it with a strong financial position and really unimpacted by the results," said spokesman Howard Opinsky.

A few candidates, including then-Sen. Albert Gore in 1988, have minimized campaigning in Iowa, and none have captured their parties' nominations. Because of its status as the first caucus state, candidates who do well there emerge with momentum fueled by free media as the contests continue in other states.

In McCain's case, his challenge "is to create his own tidal wave, and I don't know if he can do that," said Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia.

McCain ends the month with a 10-day bus tour through New Hampshire.

Also yesterday: Sen. Robert C. Smith (N.H.), who left the GOP this summer, said he would not seek the nomination of the U.S. Taxpayers Party, as he indicated recently. Smith said he prefers to maintain his political independence, but also suggested he may not pursue the presidency at all.

CAPTION: Clarence B. Craft, left, of Fayetteville, Ark., and Bud Day, middle, of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., chat with Sen. John McCain. Day and McCain were POWs together during the Vietnam War.