Washington — Newcomer John J. McKernan Jr. admits to being impressed. The freshman Republican congressman from Maine for the first time sat listening to a State of the Union address from the floor of the House of Representatives.
''Jock'' McKernan said later that it was a whole different perspective from watching the speech in your living room. But for all his enthusiasm over his new job, McKernan is a far cry from the euphoric GOP freshmen of two years ago who came in on Reagan coattails and pledged to change the country.
Sitting through the speech, Representative McKernan applauded the President, but not exactly with a wild abandon. The Maine congressman is one of only 24 Republicans who won first terms in the House last November. Many, including McKernan, won not because of Mr. Reagan but despite him.
''We've dubbed ourselves the survivors,'' he says.
Like many of his classmates, McKernan symbolizes the new independence in Congress. A state legislator and a lawyer with an Ivy League education (Dartmouth College), he won in Maine's First District by appealing to Democrats and independents.
Although he has already put a signed photograph of the President in his office, he clearly plans to set his own course in Congress. ''I thought it was a good beginning,'' he says of the President's speech. His own attitude, he says, is one of ''cautious optimism.''
The freshman legislator says he's pleased with the President's bipartisan tone, but he wants more cuts in defense. He calls the proposed freeze in federal spending ''intriguing.''
''He's working in the right direction,'' was about as far as McKerman would go in praising the President. Now he's waiting for more convincing specifics.
''Whenever you look at a president, you realize he's the chief executive for the whole country,'' he says. ''I'm representing a portion of Maine.''
To represent his area, he plans to caucus with other House members who are from the Northeast and will probably join the ''gypsy moth'' group of moderate Republicans.
''I'm going to support the White House when I think it's in the best interest of this country and the district I represent,'' he says.
For McKernan, the first priority of the new Congress should be jobs. And while he opposes what he calls purely ''make work'' jobs, he might go along with Democrats if they have a program he likes. But he prefers to see bipartisan action on the economy.
''There is plenty of blame to go around to both parties,'' he says. ''What we have to do is look together for solutions.''