WASHINGTON -- It didn't take long for Sen. John McCain to call a news conference the day President Clinton unveiled his new national security team.
The Arizona Republican was the first member of Congress to step to the microphones at the Capitol and react (favorably) to Clinton's picks for secretary of state and defense. He followed up with interviews on CNN, CNBC, the PBS "News Hour" and the Don Imus radio show.
Perhaps best-known for bravely enduring five hellish years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, the Naval Academy graduate has emerged as one of the Senate's leading voices on defense and foreign policy. But he doesn't seem content to stop there.
Recently, McCain has begun to acknowledge his interest in a presidential run in 2000.
"One reason is because so many of my constituents have urged me to not rule out that possibility," he says. "I know of no politician who wouldn't like to be president of the United States. The question is: Do I have the desire and the commitment to go through the process?"
After the defeat of Bob Dole, whose candidacy became a personal crusade for McCain, the Republican Party finds itself without a national leader. No overwhelming favorite has emerged among those likely to seek the nomination in 2000. The party chairman, Haley Barbour, is retiring, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich is lowering his profile.
At the same time, McCain -- dubbed the "White Tornado" for his hair color and high-energy style -- is well-positioned to help fill the vacuum. He got to know thousands of activists around the country this year by campaigning for Dole and, earlier, Sen. Phil Gramm, whose unsuccessful presidential bid he chaired. And when the new Congress begins next month, he'll be smack in the midst of some of the nation's most heavily publicized debates.
He has taken a leading role on campaign finance reform, an issue near the top of the public's agenda. As a member of the Keating Five, McCain was mildly reprimanded by the Senate for his involvement with disgraced savings-and-loan operator Charles H. Keating Jr. But his 1992 re-election appears to have buried the issue as far as Arizona voters are concerned.
Today, he's one of Washington's most active political reformers. He is the Republican sponsor of a bipartisan campaign finance reform plan that has been embraced by Clinton. Allegations of Democratic fund-raising abuses fueled the latest surge of public outrage on the subject.
McCain made a formal request for a special prosecutor to look into the Democratic National Committee's fund-raising practices and planned to hold highly visible investigative hearings of his own this winter. But he was cut out of the action by the GOP leadership, which turned the entire matter over to a panel led by another rising star in the party, Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee.
In the field of national defense, the departure of Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat, and other senior senators on the Armed Services Committee is likely to enhance McCain's influence as the military restructures for the post-Cold War era.
It won't hurt that the next defense secretary, Republican Sen. William S. Cohen of Maine, is a close friend (he was best man at McCain's wedding to his second wife, Cindy, in 1980).
Most valuable perch
Perhaps McCain's most valuable perch is as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, a position he will assume next month.
From there, McCain plans to shine a spotlight on a wide range of topics, such as the safety of air bags and television's new sex-and-violence ratings and, indirectly at least, on McCain himself.
He has taken no direct steps toward a presidential run, such as raising money or forming an exploratory committee. But he has signaled his interest in molding the future of the Republican Party.
He recently took aim at one of the GOP's most serious political problems -- its reputation for being hostile to environmental protection -- in a New York Times op-ed piece that urged Republicans to return to their conservationist roots. (A separate question is whether McCain, who has a below-average national record on the environment, according to activists, is the person to take the party there.)
The 60-year-old senator calls himself "fundamentally a reformer and a deregulator." But that description barely skims the surface of one of the most complex personalities in Washington.
He's media-wise, likes to reach across partisan battle lines and generates goodwill from unlikely quarters in the capital's contentious atmosphere. Liberals and the press love him, as much for his candor and pugnacious independence as anything else. Fellow Republican conservatives are among his sharpest critics.
Old Reagan robot
His views defy categorization. When he came to Congress in 1983, he was called a Reagan robot. His outspoken opposition to President Ronald Reagan's fateful decision to keep Marines in Lebanon was one of many actions that helped dispel that notion.
The senator has worked tirelessly to keep up his base in his adopted home state, flying home most weekends to be with his wife and children in Phoenix. But he also stood up against a popular English-language-only state ballot initiative because he thought it was wrong.
He lists as a role model former Sen. William Proxmire, the maverick Democrat from Wisconsin who made a career out of exposing wasteful government spending, which he publicized with a monthly "Golden Fleece" award. Proxmire, he notes, "was willing to take on the entire [Senate] because he was doing what he thought was right."
In the same vein, McCain, the son and grandson of admirals and an advocate of a strong national defense, has tried, with some success, to thwart pork-barrel military spending designed mainly to help members of Congress with the voters back home. (He was defeated, however, when he tried to shut down the VIP parking lot for congress members at National Airport.)
As an opponent of abortion rights, he passes the litmus test of his party's social conservative wing.
But he infuriated many fellow Vietnam War veterans with his support for normalizing relations with Vietnam, which gave the Clinton administration the political cover needed to take that step.
Over the years, he says, he's increasingly come to see the wisdom of using government action to help the poor. That populist tinge to his thinking may, however, put McCain out of step with many of the conservatives who dominate his party's presidential primaries.
"For me to be a viable presidential candidate, there would have to be a different environment from what existed in 1996," McCain says. "I think they'd have to be looking for someone who is not the, quote, mainstream conservative Republican. I'll match my conservative credentials with anybody, but I know there are some people who wouldn't agree with a lot of the things that I've done."
His pollster, Bill McInturff, has advised McCain not to seek another Senate term in 1998 if he wants to run for president. McInturff contends that McCain would need that year -- and more -- to compete with other Republican presidential hopefuls who are already gearing up for 2000.
McCain rejects that advice.
"For me to say, 'Look, I want to be president of the United States, and I'm not going to run for re-election' and [instead] start in on calling people in Iowa and raising money -- I'm just not capable [of doing that]," says McCain.
"There's just too many things I want to do here in the Senate."
Pub Date: 12/16/96