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Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

Diogenes: Forget Athens, head to Arizona!

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WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- Diogenes, the 4th century B.C. philosopher, used to walk through Athens in broad daylight carrying a lighted lamp while searching -- unsuccessfully -- for an honest man.

With no disrespect intended to residents of Greece's capital either living or not, let me suggest that Diogenes' search would be far more fruitful if it were conducted in 21st century Arizona.

In addition to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whose fearless candor, self-deprecating wit and fierce patriotism very nearly derailed the GOP king-makers' well-funded coronation in 2000 of their anointed governor of Texas, we must now add the name of another Arizona Republican (that's right), Rep. Jeff Flake, who this week announced he would not challenge the renomination in the state GOP primary of John McCain to an expected fourth Senate term.

Why did Flake -- who completely supported the Bush tax cuts that McCain strongly opposed, who fought against McCain's landmark bill to reform campaign finance and who had the deep-pockets backing of the Club for Growth, a political action committee of tax-cutting Wall Street types that in 2000 had provided more than $200,000 to Flake's first, winning campaign -- choose not to make the race?

Washington is full of "spin." When most politicians decide not to seek a higher elective office that they have lusted after their entire adult life, here's how they usually explain their non-candidacy: "Now is the time for me to explore a number of attractive opportunities in the private sector," or, "I think I can better serve the good people of (insert hometown/home-state) doing the work I love in my present position," or the oldest chestnut of all, "I want to spend more time with my family" (but please do not ask me my children's birthdays or the name of their schoolteacher).

Here is what Rep. Jeff Flake said when I asked him why he had decided not to run against John McCain: "I'd love to be in the Senate, but quite frankly I could not beat John McCain." Was the fact that Arizona has an "open" primary in which independent voters (who overwhelmingly approve of McCain) can vote a factor in Flake's decision not to run? "To be honest, even if the primary were 'closed' to just Republican voters. I still could not beat John McCain."

Stephen Moore, the president of the Club for Growth, which in 2002 raised $10 million -- much more than the biggest corporate political action committee -- for Republican candidates, had publicly urged Flake to run: "I am confident that we could raise a million dollars for him. That's how despised John McCain has become among conservative, Republican donors."

This week, Moore told me that "McCain -- for all his apostasy on taxes and campaign financing -- has been fervent in his support for President Bush on Iraq, and that has inoculated him with conservatives." Moore, also noted for candor, is backing conservative Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., who is challenging Pennsylvania's liberal Republican Sen. Arlen Specter.

Moore revealed that the Bush White House has actively discouraged the Club for Growth's support of Toomey against Specter, but it had never suggested that Moore and his group not underwrite the opposition to John McCain.

While seriously weighing a challenge against him, Flake bluntly admits his total admiration of John McCain's long and lonely battle against pork-barrel spending, so much of which is privately inserted in appropriations bills at the personal request of a member.

Flake, who has drawn some Arizona static for pledging that he will never submit any earmarked requests for federal spending for his own district that do not go through the full legislative process, commits candor once more: "On the pork-barrel spending issues, John McCain has been my personal hero for a long time."

In the final analysis, whether Jeff Flake ran against him or not or, almost certainly, whether the Democrats run anybody against him or not, John McCain is as close to a "lock' for re-election from Arizona as is humanly possible.

His courage and candor and leadership make him invaluable. But you still have to like any politician who is honest enough to admit that "I'd love to be in the Senate, but frankly I could not beat John McCain."

Spin-free Arizona.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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