The maverick's subtle ways play into GOP future

WASHINGTON - As Republican leaders assess a tea party movement that has both energized and polarized their ranks, John McCain takes a generally benign view of the political landscape - but clearly comes down on the side of the traditional establishment rather than with the young rebels.

I was eager to catch up with McCain after his searing summer experience of having to fight for renomination to a fifth term against former Arizona Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a spiritual ally of the tea partyers. So the first week that Congress was back at work, I sought McCain out.

Having buried the talk-show host under $21 million of TV ads and 37 town meetings, McCain now faces only a minimal general election challenge from Tucson City Councilman Rodney Glassman, a Democrat. But when I remarked that McCain must be reveling in the freedom that has come to him at age 74, he demurred, saying, "I'm comfortable, but I still have responsibilities."

When I asked what goals remain, he spoke immediately of the economy - never his strong suit but the overriding concern for his constituents, who are suffering with high unemployment and one of the worst foreclosure epidemics in the country. Next, national security - a longtime preoccupation for the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, especially the unfinished engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq and the growing threat from Iran.

"And," he said, "I hope I'll have the opportunity to spend some time helping and mentoring the next generation of Republicans who are ready to move in here."

This led to his reminiscence of 1980, the year that provided entree to Washington for McCain and many others of his generation. The key to that election, he said, was the erosion of Jimmy Carter's personal leadership with the Iran hostage crisis and the rebellion of liberal Democrats against the White House.

"Now the voters still like Barack Obama" McCain said, "but they have come to disagree with his policies" - so the door is again open to newcomers.

It was only when McCain began describing his plans for the coming campaign and his hopes for the Senate that it became clear where his influence will be felt in the struggles now emerging within the GOP. I got no sense that McCain will lead the charge against the tea party forces. When I asked directly if he saw their success in primaries in Delaware, Alaska, Nevada, Kentucky, Colorado and other states as a threat to the GOP's viability, he said no. After all, Sarah Palin, the Alaska governor he elevated to national prominence and who campaigned for him in Arizona this summer, has been part of many of those victories.

But when I asked where he'd be campaigning outside Arizona this fall, he mentioned not one of the tea party winners. Instead, the Senate candidates who can expect a visit from him are Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Carly Fiorina in California, Mark Kirk in Illinois and Rob Portman in Ohio. All are conventional, business-oriented Republicans.

McCain has not failed to notice that the same polls that forecast Republican gains in November also show less public confidence in the GOP than in the Democrats. Why? "In part, it's the Bush hangover," he said, "and we haven't given the voters much of an idea of what we'd do. We need four or five clear proposals."

Because of that Republican infirmity, McCain said, a post-election Obama could hope for a positive response if he emulates the post-1994 Bill Clinton and reaches out to Republicans for support in the next Congress. "It never happened this time, but it still could," he said.

(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group