The McCain aura, now felt in Senate

Former presidential hopeful returns to his old job, changing chemistry on Capitol Hill.

John McCain didn't want any particular fuss when he returned to his old job this week.

But after a meteoric presidential campaign that nearly toppled Texas Gov. George W. Bush for the Republican nomination, the Arizona senator does have big plans for the future.

So, for now, both sides in the great political duel of the winter - McCain vs. the Republican establishment - have sheathed their knives and are on best behavior.

The rock-star senator emphasized Kosovo, not campaign-finance overhaul, in his return statement in the Senate chamber. At the weekly Republican Senate luncheon, he heard warm words from his party elders and received a standing ovation.

But a bald political fact lies at the center of this new Capitol Hill dynamic: John McCain is a hot commodity, one of only two or three senators with national celebrity and a bully pulpit few politicians in America enjoy. After all, he got 5 million new voters to turn out to vote and won seven states in the primaries.

He can be an enormous asset to his party, as it seeks to retain control of Congress and win the White House in November. The question is, what will Mr. McCain require in return? Republican members of Congress, and GOP candidates seeking to win open House seats, are clamoring for his support as the next phase of Campaign 2000 kicks into gear.

Future control of the US House, currently in GOP hands by only the slimmest of margins, remains very much in question.

"He's probably the most sought-after man to campaign in districts that I can ever remember," says former Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire, co-chairman of McCain's presidential campaign. "Without McCain voters, they'll have a hard time winning in a close district."

McCain is reportedly planning to form a political-action committee, called the "Straight Talk America PAC," which would fund his plan to travel around the country and speak out on his reform agenda - and campaign for Republican candidates.

McCain has said he will support GOP candidates who support serious changes in the way Washington does business, though they don't necessarily have to back his specific formula for amending the way campaigns are financed.

The largest question hanging over McCain is when and how he will endorse Governor Bush for president. McCain has indicated he supports Bush, despite their bitter primary battle, but has stopped short of a full endorsement - a step McCain's Republican Senate colleagues call vital.

"It's very important," says Sen. James Jeffords (R) of Vermont, speaking outside the Senate chamber. "I'm sure that'll come."

But in a way, Bush needs McCain more than McCain needs Bush. There is even some talk - eschewed by McCain himself - that the senator will merely bide his time until the 2004 presidential campaign, when he can ride in on his white horse and snatch the White House back (presuming, in this scenario, that the Democrat wins in November).

In the meantime, the just-reconvened Senate is again debating McCain's favorite issue, campaign-finance reform. Yesterday, McCain's nemesis on the issue, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, was to convene hearings. And a McCain supporter in the Senate, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, has now offered a version of reform that, while unsatisfactory to McCain, also helps keep the issue front and center.

Senator Hagel's version is "an effort to advance the cause in a nonantagonistic way," says Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist working on Capitol Hill this year. "There's a concern within the Republican caucus about the divisiveness that emerged in the latter stages of the Republican primary." Hagel, he says, is "trying to bridge the gap between the reformist wing and the stand-patters."

But no one is sure how McCain, renowned for his prickly temperament, will handle this issue between now and November. He has been known to poke a stick in the eye of GOP Senate leaders over what he calls pork-barrel projects in their states.

For now, though, everyone's on best behavior.

"We know some people were angry with him, but we're politicians," says Sen. Connie Mack (R) of Florida. "I think most members can put aside the feelings they've had in the past and truly welcome someone back."

Senators, after all, want to appear to be agreeable types, particularly toward someone with McCain's following. "They'll do their grousing about him off the record," says Mr. Baker.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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