Features

Raising McCain

National | Arizona senator is the latest hot running-mate prospect

Issue: "Disorder in the Court," June 8, 1996

Sen. John McCain walks briskly from his inner office to grab a reporter's hand-and also to grab yet another opportunity to deny he's a top contender for the second spot on the Dole presidential ticket. The Arizona Republican has been denying that for weeks now, often three and four times a day.

"I'm very flattered but I'm not interested," says Sen. McCain, 59, leaning back in his chair. "I've made that clear to Sen. Dole, and I do not believe the occasion will arise where I'll be asked."

But if asked? He frowns pensively.

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"To say one would refuse a request from the leader of one's party would be presumptuous," he said.

His Phoenix office has the feel of a lightly used district base; the books on the shelves here range from picture-books on El Salvador and Muhammed Ali to Navajo Sacred Places and Jim Wright's Balance of Power. There are surprisingly few reminders of his distinguished naval career-there's a print of a painting of the aircraft carrier America, but no visible indications that this soft-spoken man earned, among other citations, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Purple Heart, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Neither is there anything that would let on that he was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for five and a half years.

When asked about his faith, he cited his membership in a Phoenix Baptist church, which happens to be in a theologically liberal denomination. When pressed on how his faith affects his everyday life, he seemed confused by the question, but offered a bit stiffly: "I would say I'm a person of religious convictions. I think I strive to adhere to a set of Judeo-Christian principles."

The question for the Dole camp is whether those "Judeo-Christian principles" will be enough to assuage Christians and cultural conservatives in the Republican party. Sen. McCain says his support for the pro-life plank in the party's platform is solid.

"I would hope that Republicans would understand that the platform we had in 1980, 1984, and 1988 was one that was acceptable to the majority of American people, and I hope we can resolve any disagreements on that issue before the convention. At the same time, I understand there are others in the party with differing views."

But it is worth fighting for? Again he answers stiffly.

"Well, I hope we all will realize that a fight would help the Democrats and would hurt our chances of electing Bob Dole," he says. "The best way for us to address this issue is for us all to sit down and resolve these differences."

The real battle against abortion will take place elsewhere, he says, relaxing a bit.

"When teenagers don't get pregnant, there's less abortion. When there are two parents in a family, there's less abortion. When the institution of marriage is respected, there's less abortion."

Methodically, he runs down the list of conservative causes: He's for welfare reform, he wants to step up the war on drugs and crime, he wants to experiment with school vouchers. And those are the positions, presumably, Sen. Dole's vice presidential search committee, formed last week, will be looking for. But Sen. McCain's past includes close ties to Charles Keating; he was one of the "Keating Five," although he was let off with a rebuke by the Senate Ethics Committee.

Still, he seems to have a good grasp on what worries the conservative wing of the Republican party, and he can speak the language.

"The main problem we're going to be facing is the breakdown of the family, because so many problems are the result of that-crime, drugs, divorce. And there's no one answer. It will have to be welfare reform and winning the war on drugs and providing better education." Sen. McCain is divorced and remarried; he had three children by his first wife, and has four more with his current wife, according to the Associated Press. His youngest child, a 4-year-old, is adopted.

Hanging on the same wall in his Phoenix office are photos of Sen. McCain posing with George Bush and also with Henry Kissinger. The Dole campaign is right to see the war hero-turned-politician-the George Bush-in Mr. McCain. But the conservative arm of the party is also right in wondering whether there might be some Henry Kissinger-the "peace with honor" diplomat and dealmaker-in Sen. McCain when it comes to the cultural battles within the party.

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