- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2000

The vanquished hero returns to his Senate colleagues today, and some of his liege men are trying to arrange a triumphant reception.

A spluttering conflagration of old flames, the ladies and gents of press and tube who warmed but never illuminated his campaign, swarmed around John McCain yesterday when he returned to his office at the Capitol to deal with "paperwork" and visit with Warren Rudman, the former senator from New Hampshire who did more than any other man to wreck the McCain campaign.

Mr. Rudman is the author, more or less, of Mr. McCain's intemperate attack on Christian conservatives "bigots," in Mr. Rudman's mean-spirited description that ignited the backlash that buried the McCain candidacy in coast-to-coast primaries on Super Tuesday.

The test, if we can call it that, comes today, when Mr. McCain joins the colleagues he so eloquently dissed in his attacks on the Republican "establishment." He joins the regularly scheduled monthly luncheon of the Republican caucus in the Senate. He expects "a warm welcome," which, in the exaggeration and hyperbole that make up the Senate code of etiquette, means he won't get "a hot welcome."

Crow is not on the menu. Nobody will throw their hard rolls or broccoli at him, either. Says Paul Coverdell, the senator from Georgia who is a Senate point man for George W.: "Senators are in conflict every day with each other, in committee, over issues, in letters, in the media, on the floor. But it has a fraternal nature to it and you set the battles aside."

Mr. McCain sent word to the Republican leaders from the South Pacific, where he has been vacationing since Super Tuesday, that he wants no public ceremonies no palm fronds or rose petals laid in his path to mark his return. No problem. Trent Lott says there are no plans for a parade. He more or less endorsed "the nominee of the party" again yesterday, but could not bring himself to actually say George W.'s name.

The return of the hero has been as carefully plotted as the return of a bride from her honeymoon, though returning without a bridegroom does invite considerable chagrin. The senator reviewed plans yesterday for the inevitable political action committee to enable him to pay for his trips to various outposts in the hinterlands in behalf of campaign-finance reform and in behalf of selected candidates, presumably all Republicans.

What Mr. McCain must mind are the fraternal manners of aides, advisers, lobbyists, gofers and other hangers-on who are suddenly unemployed. The Straight Talk Express was not a gravy train, but it was fun and it beat walking, and for an adviser who chooses sides unwisely the fate worse than death in an election year is to be suddenly bereft of a horse with the prospect of having to walk home.

"There are only two United States senators who have a truly national constituency," says Ken Duberstein, a senior adviser and a former White House chief of staff who no doubt would like to get another lick at the gravy. "One's name is Ted Kennedy and one's name is John McCain." Perhaps. But for Mr. McCain the analogy is not reassuring. Ted Kennedy is not likely to have a lot of say in Al Gore's campaign, nor is he any longer surrounded by a surfeit of hangers-on.

The colleagues Mr. McCain pilloried so savagely during the campaign, accusing them of being out of touch with America, lighting $5 cigars with taxpayers' money and hotly pursuing lobbyists and special interests, may still be nursing anger and hurt. But every senator will quietly push his great pink slab of salmon around on his plate, looking for a stray lettuce leaf to hide it under, and say nothing. (Bush guys like real meat.) He's still got lingering influence, and politicians lust only to make out with whoever's got the clout.

They read the polls. New national surveys suggest that even if he gives in to the temptation to be a sore loser to George W., Mr. McCain can nevertheless help Republican congressional candidates, both in raising money and turning out semi-disaffected voters.

"The congressional campaign committee ought to put him on right away to start doing these swing congressional districts," Ed Goeas, who polls for Republican candidates, says. "He can be a real asset in keeping Congress."

The senators who were irked by the excessively savage attacks on George W. are as usual more concerned with personal slights. He has posted on his Internet site as examples of "pork-barrel" spending certain public works projects that certain other Republican senators do not regard as "pork barrel" at all. That hurts. If the pork is good enough to serve to Arizona, a certain senior senator might say, it ought to be good enough to serve to Mississippi.

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