McCain delegates back Bush but hold out hope for 2004

Since his run ended, he's been as visible as ever. He'll address convention tonight.

John McCain, it seems, is everywhere.

He's riding his bus - the journalist-packed Straight Talk Express - into Philadelphia. He's doing more book-signings. He's all over television. He's addressing the so-called "shadow convention," an alternative gathering here focused on issues the two major parties are sidestepping. He's entertaining his delegates.

And tonight, the Arizona senator is planting himself firmly back in the Republican fold with an address to the party's convention that will focus on national security - not the role of big money in politics.

It would be easy to surmise that Senator McCain, who rocketed to national fame when he nearly toppled Texas Gov. George W. Bush for the GOP presidential nomination this spring, is positioning himself to run for president again, should Governor Bush lose in November.

When asked, McCain demurs. In 2004, he told reporters on this weekend's bus trip, "I fully expect to be campaigning for the reelection of President Bush."

In fact, if Bush does lose, McCain could follow the same path as Ronald Reagan after the election of 1976, positioned as the immediate front-runner to challenge the new Democratic president.

But McCain is playing a somewhat different game than Mr. Reagan did 24 years ago. Reagan took his challenge to the front-runner, President Ford, all the way to the convention. McCain folded his campaign as soon as the numbers looked impossible, and immediately endorsed Bush.

Still, McCain is continuing to poke a finger in the eye of the GOP establishment by speaking out on campaign finance - even as he plays the loyal Republican, crisscrossing the country to campaign for GOP congressional candidates and for Bush himself.

"John McCain is the most important reformer from within the system," says conservative columnist Arianna Huffington, an organizer of the shadow convention, "but he's within the system, and that's a high-wire act."

The challenges of that high-wire act were apparent at McCain's recent shadow convention speech, when hecklers booed him over his support for Bush and over a native-American land dispute in Arizona.

Loyalty vs. authenticity

As McCain seeks to straddle different interests, it's possible he could wind up pleasing no one. By suddenly toeing the loyal GOP line, he could lose the "authenticity" that made him so appealing to the 5 million people who voted for him during the primaries. And by continuing to speak out on money in politics - and call attention to himself with a high-profile public schedule - he's not making new friends in the GOP establishment.

"There's a certain self-indulgent aspect to what McCain is doing," says political analyst Charles Cook.

But there's no doubt that McCain retains the fierce loyalty of his delegates here, about 160 out of a total 2,066 at the convention.

One, John Zimmerman from Queens, N.Y., couldn't bear the idea of voting for Bush, so he planned to go home before the delegates vote. He says he'll quit the Republican Party and vote for Ralph Nader, the Green Party nominee, in November.

Another disappointed McCainite, Vet Payne, a retired Coast Guard captain from East Greenwich, R.I., says he'll abstain when the delegates cast their votes. In November, he'll write in McCain.

Supporting Bush, for now

Most McCain delegates interviewed here, though, seemed content to go along with the senator's wish that they support Bush. Bobbie Coffin, a retired medical technician from Hancock, N.H., says she doesn't want the party to divide and will vote for the Texas governor in November.

But most also thought McCain should run for president again in 2004 if Bush loses in the fall.

On the Straight Talk Express, the senator was clearly tired of this question by the time he reached his fourth group of journalists crammed in the back of the bus with him. He also seemed tired of having to justify this bus trip in the first place, and explain how that would play with the Bush camp.

"I neither regret nor apologize" for the trip, he said, "except that I certainly don't want to harm anyone's feelings."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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