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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The McCain moment

Sure, he can talk tough on Kosovo and campaign reform. But can he ignite passion on other issues?

By JAMES CARNEY/WASHINGTON

April 26, 1999
Web posted at: 11:00 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT)

TIME magazine

Early this year, after he had made up his mind to run for President, John McCain joked about what had motivated his decision. Perhaps, as his wife Cindy kept telling him, the impulse was the result of "too many sharp blows to the head while I was in prison," a reference to his 5 1/2 years as a POW in Hanoi. But win or lose, said McCain more seriously, his run for the presidency would help remind Americans that "the world is still a very dangerous place. After the past six years, we need a President who can demonstrate leadership in foreign policy."

That was in January, when Senator John McCain of Arizona was as unknown to most Americans as a place called Kosovo. But since the NATO air assault against Yugoslavia began five weeks ago, McCain, a 62-year-old former Navy pilot and Vietnam War hero, has won attention and praise as the candidate who didn't hesitate to call for considering the use of ground troops and who criticized the Clinton Administration for squeamishly "trying to avoid war while waging one." His blunt talk was in such demand that his staff lost track of the number of Kosovo-related TV appearances the Senator had made after the first week of the conflict.

Why he's hot

His Vietnam credentials, wartime gravitas and no-bull style make him a perfect antidote to Clinton

Why he's not

Foreign policy experience and campaign-finance reform don't quicken the hearts of primary voters

The performance is paying off where it counts. In Iowa, site of the first presidential caucuses next February, the Des Moines Register ran an editorial on Kosovo and the various candidates under the headline MCCAIN 1, OTHERS 0. And in New Hampshire, where McCain hopes the state's famously independent-minded Republicans will reward his independence, a poll last week showed him leapfrogging over some of the lower-tier G.O.P. candidates into third place behind front runners George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole. The result has been a boost in direct-mail fund-raising receipts and a spike in interest among activists in key states. Until a few weeks ago, Pete Spaulding, a Republican who serves on New Hampshire's state executive council, was considering supporting Bush. Last week he went with McCain. "He doesn't say what other people want to hear," Spaulding explained. "He says what he thinks is right, and I admire that."

But is there more to McCain than his plainspoken realism in foreign affairs? To become the natural alternative to Bush, McCain will have to compete on domestic turf, and here his favorite issues have earned him more bruises than badges of honor. He's known mostly for his unsuccessful efforts to reform the nation's campaign-finance laws and to curtail teenage smoking, both of which infuriated party leaders and rankled many of McCain's colleagues. And the Senator's long battle against pork-barrel spending has earned him few friends on Capitol Hill. "I don't believe I'm going to win Miss Congeniality," the Senator told TIME recently. "But I also don't think this campaign is going to be decided by the endorsements of Congressmen, Senators and Governors."

It will be decided, however, by Republican primary voters, who are inclined to care more about cutting taxes or preventing abortions than they do about banning soft money or saving the Kosovar Albanians. And that may be a problem for McCain. Asked what he learned from Bob Dole's failed campaign in 1996, in which Dole listlessly touted a 15% across-the-board income-tax cut, McCain replies, "If you don't believe in it, don't say it. And if you do believe in it, say it with some passion." And sure enough, when McCain talks about the "corruption" caused by the way campaigns are financed, he is all passion: his eyes burn; his voice is clear; and his words flow unchecked by calculation. He is excited too when he rails against popular ethanol subsidies in ethanol-dependent Iowa or preaches the value of ethnic diversity in lily-white New Hampshire. But ask him about the rest of his message, and McCain dutifully recites a list of issues he says "resonate" with voters: "lower taxes, smaller government, less regulation, Social Security [and] Medicare." His heart just doesn't seem in it.

For now, McCain's best asset is the story of his own harrowing treatment at the hands of the North Vietnamese, which not only lends credibility to his call for all-out war against Milosevic but also weighs on the mind of any rival who might question his integrity. On the floor of the Senate last week, McCain declared he would share the responsibility for American lives lost in a ground war against Serbia. "But," he went on, "I would rather face that sad burden than hide from my conscience because I sought an ambiguous political position to seek shelter behind." Words like those have given McCain the beginning of a presidential sheen.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: May 2, 1999

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