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Military culture, pragmatism shape McCain

John McCain's military experience and Senate record show a presidential candidate who values integrity and getting things done.

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Recent news stories focusing on land-swap deals in Arizona have shined a spotlight on how McCain campaign contributors have benefited from legislation he has pushed. The latest one centered on a measure in 2005 that allowed an Arizona rancher to trade remote land for federal property that was then developed by a major McCain fundraiser. The deal was aided by lobbyists who used to work for McCain.

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A McCain spokesman says no lobbyist influenced the senator on the deal, and that McCain believes so-called legislative land swaps, when properly employed, benefit conservation. But such stories could cast a shadow over McCain's efforts to present himself as squeaky clean on the role of money in politics, and on Washington's revolving door of lobbyists in and out of government service.

McCain has taken heat for having so many lobbyists at the top of his campaign, though the other candidates have also dealt with conflict-of-interest issues with top aides. The challenge for McCain, going forward, will be to spin his extensive Washington experience as a plus in a campaign where voters want change. He has served as chairman of a key Senate committee, Commerce, and shepherded major legislation through to the Oval Office. He has also served on the Armed Services Committee since he joined the Senate and is currently the top Republican there.

But his high-profile bipartisan projects are what the campaign will tout. Former aides to McCain speak of his natural inclination to try to work across the aisle when controversy arises. For example, in 2005, the so-called Gang of 14 – seven senators from each party, with McCain as the lead Republican – successfully defused tensions over judicial nominations.

A President McCain, sure to face expanded Democratic majorities in both houses, would be expected to follow the same impulse. "He'll constantly be seeking out [Democrats] to find compromises to get things done," says a former staffer.

McCain as leader

Though McCain has no executive experience in government or business, he did, for a few years, reach management level in the military after his release from Vietnam. With McCain as commander, Replacement Air Group 174 in Jacksonville, Fla., received its first-ever Meritorious Unit Citation.

Former McCain aides describe a civilian leadership style that comes straight out of the military.

"He really tries you out and tests you early on, then if he likes you, you get a lot of leash. And if you don't do well, then the leash gets yanked and maybe cut off," says Lorne Craner, a former staffer in McCain's Senate office who now heads the International Republican Institute, which McCain chairs.

Some former McCain aides have fallen out with the senator, and declined interview requests. McCain's well-documented temper – which the senator himself acknowledges, and has worked to control – may well be part of the story.

Other former aides have happy memories of their time with McCain. "I'm gonna sound fatuous: He's inspirational," says Dan Schnur, communications director of McCain's 2000 presidential campaign. "There are a lot of people who have very strong, negative feelings about him. But once he decides that you're going to be part of the cause, he's one of the most inspiring leaders you'll ever see."

Experience profiles of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama ran April 16 and April 17, respectively.