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McCain Keeping the Door Open

Times Staff Writer

You would think that calling yourself a friend of Sen. John F. Kerry, touting frequent alliances with the Democratic presidential nominee and defending his Vietnam War record would not make you a particularly popular figure this week inside the Republican National Convention.

Yet that is just what Sen. John McCain did Sunday morning inside Madison Square Garden -- talking about the Democrat even as he prepared to headline tonight’s opening of a four-day convention designed to keep the Republican incumbent, President Bush, in the White House.

McCain’s remarks placed the famously independent Arizona senator right where he has enjoyed being for much of the last year: courted by both candidates and, unique among his contemporaries, mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate or Cabinet appointee by both major parties.

Those who know McCain well, however, say he is not focused on the prospect of working in someone else’s White House, but on protecting his treasured political iconoclasm, soaking up the adulation it brings and keeping open the possibility of a presidential run in 2008.

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As he turned 68 Sunday, the tight-jawed former Navy pilot with the wispy white hair was the toast of Republican New York -- feted in a midday luncheon at tony 21 and celebrated that evening at a dinner with media moguls and the anchors of all three network news programs.

“He would be a very good president,” McCain’s aunt, 92-year-old Rowena Willis, said Sunday before the first of the birthday parties. “But don’t you think he might be too old? I don’t know.”

A successful 2008 campaign would put McCain in office at age 72, older than Ronald Reagan, who became the oldest man elected to the presidency with his 1980 victory at the age of 69. Although he has recovered fully after having malignant melanomas removed four years ago, McCain’s age and health would almost certainly become campaign issues in a presidential run.

In explaining the reluctance to disavow a future candidacy, McCain for years has fallen back on a line from the late Morris K. Udall, the onetime presidential candidate and Democratic Arizona congressman, who said: “Potomac fever is a disease which can only be cured by embalming fluid.”

McCain’s continuing interest in the presidency partly helps explain, according to people familiar with his thinking, why he has increasingly fallen into the embrace of Bush, a man he held in none-too-shrouded contempt after their primary election showdown in 2000.

Although he values his independence, McCain saw first-hand in that race that a maverick presidential run can only go so far. His increasingly enthusiastic campaigning for the president this year will likely win him points with the Republican Party mainstays he would need in 2008.

“My sense is that McCain has made this decision [that] this is the party he is part of, and he wants to do whatever he can for it,” said David Winston, a pollster for House and Senate Republicans. “He knows this is where his future is.”

Despite sharp disagreements with Bush on some high-profile issues -- he slammed the proposal for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and endorsed more modest tax cuts -- McCain votes to support Bush the vast majority of the time.

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“He supported [Bush’s] election in 2000 and campaigned very hard for him, and people don’t seem to remember that,” said McCain political aide John Weaver. “While he has some significant policy differences [with Bush], at the end of the day, he is a member of the same tribe.”

That particularly applies to defense issues, where McCain’s hawkish views usually fit closely with those of the president. While some critics viewed Bush’s description of terrorism’s “axis of evil” as extreme, McCain had four years earlier called for a “rogue state rollback.” (Bush’s axis consisted of Iran, Iraq and North Korea, while McCain also placed Serbia on his list of untrustworthy nations.)

The convention’s opening night theme of national security accentuates McCain’s common ground with Bush. He will begin by telling Americans that they have a “rendezvous with destiny” similar to the one Franklin D. Roosevelt described to the nation as war loomed in Europe.

That’s not to say that McCain and his allies have entirely forgotten their run-ins with Bush and his supporters in 2000. McCain came under attack following his unexpected victory in the New Hampshire primary. Partisans who were never clearly identified suggested in phone calls to voters in racially sensitive South Carolina that McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child. He and his wife, in fact, had adopted a Bangladeshi daughter.

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McCain railed against the “sleazy” tactics and later told Bush that he should be “ashamed” for supporting a group that said McCain had “abandoned” fellow Vietnam veterans. Some people who know him say McCain will never get over shots leveled at his family.

But in a “Face the Nation” interview Sunday at Madison Square Garden -- which included his remarks about Kerry -- McCain insisted his hard feelings for Bush died quickly.

“I was past it two months after the election,” McCain said. “You cannot look back in anger, because then you’re not serving your constituency.”

The rapprochement between the two men has been gradual and partly contingent on a peacemaking between the president’s political major-domo, Karl Rove, and Weaver, the McCain campaign manager who ended up in a form of Republican political exile representing some Democrats because of the fallout from the primary battle.

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Today, Weaver said, the relationships are working, but he nonetheless talks of acting as the “liaison between our world and their world.”

McCain allies said the senator was looking forward to his all-but-certain reelection to a fourth term in November. He will be in line to assume the coveted chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee in about two years.

In the meantime, McCain enjoys popularity ratings that are among the highest of any national political figure, with as many as five times as many people surveyed saying they like him as those who say they do not.

It is no surprise that Bush and Kerry continue to draft off McCain, who polls particularly well among the independent voters who may decide the race.

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Bush ran a television ad showing an emotional introduction McCain gave him in front of a crowd of soldiers. An early Kerry ad showed the candidate with his hand on McCain’s shoulder.

But tonight, it will be Bush who McCain praises in no uncertain terms.

Times researcher Penny Love contributed to this report.

*

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Portrait of a political independent

Born: Aug. 29, 1936, in the Panama Canal Zone.

Hometown: Phoenix

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Personal: Married to Carol Shepp; divorced 1980. Married to Cindy (Hensley) McCain. Seven children and four grandchildren.

Education: Naval Academy, bachelor of science, 1958. National War College, 1973-1974.

Career: U.S. Navy, 1958-1980. Vietnam prisoner of war, 1967-1973. Director of Navy Senate liaison office, 1977-1981. U.S. representative, 1982-1986. U.S. Senate, 1986-present.

* McCain, the son and grandson of Navy admirals, was a Navy pilot who was shot down in the Vietnam War. He was a prisoner of war from 1967 to 1973.

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* Arizona’s senior senator ran against George W. Bush for the Republication presidential nomination in 2000. A decisive victory in the New Hampshire primary gave McCain a strong start, but he ended his run that spring after he was unable to appeal to the party’s more conservative voters.

* McCain teamed up with Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) on campaign finance reform. The McCain-Feingold bill, which became law in March 2002, bans “soft money” contributions to political parties and limits “issue ads” before an election.

* McCain has joined Democrats to support issues such as stem cell research and HMO regulation, and to oppose a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He worked with Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry in the 1990s to press for normalizing diplomatic ties with Vietnam.

* McCain has dismissed talk of switching political parties and has supported many Republican initiatives, including Bush’s war on terrorism. He was also one of 10 members of Congress to sign a letter in December 2001 that advocated attacking Iraq.

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Sources: The Almanac of American Politics, The Brookings Institution,

mccain.senate.gov, www.mccain2000.com


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