Sen. John McCain is behaving more like a Republican loyalist than like the pugnacious apostate of his defiant presidential nomination brawl with Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
“John is being a good soldier,” Rep. Tomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, told The Washington Times. “What he is doing could be the margin of difference this fall.”
As chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which raises money and provides other help for Republican House candidates, Mr. Davis says he will need all the help he can get for the November elections.
Some Republicans privately feared he would be the opposite of the good soldier namely, the sore loser and party divider that Democrats and some in the media seemed to expect he would be.
Mr. McCain fed that concern for a while with plans to form his own political action committee and take his reform agenda on the road again.
Those worries about him are rapidly evaporating among elected Republicans, although mutual suspicions linger among some in both the Bush and McCain organizations.
Since ending his nomination quest and returning to the Senate, Mr. McCain has said he will demand no concessions from Mr. Bush.
Equally important, fellow Republicans say, is Mr. McCain’s pledge to help campaign for fellow Republicans in the House and the Senate, whether or not they agreed with his proposals to change federal campaign finance laws.
In the early primaries, Mr. McCain amassed a 5 million-vote treasure chest heavily laden with independents and alienated Democrats. Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican and a McCain confidant, said any vulnerable Republican incumbent will need to get these voters to swing his way in order to survive a Democratic challenge in November.
“George W. Bush and Republicans in marginal House and Senate seats are going to need Democrats and independents in order to be elected,” Mr. Hagel said. “McCain has had a phenomenal appeal across the political spectrum and has gone deep into Democratic territory.”
Mr. McCain already has done something else that fellow Republicans vastly appreciate: He has put the wheels back on his “Straight Talk Express” and used it to bump the Democrats’ presidential caravan off the road.
The Arizona senator has taken some swipes at born-again reformer Al Gore, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, suggesting that the vice president is a man who knows something about campaign finance abuse from personal experience.
Mr. McCain said that parts of Mr. Gore’s reform proposal “merit serious consideration.” But, he said, “to convince a skeptical public that his efforts are sincere and not an election-year conversion, the vice president needs to back his words with meaningful, bipartisan action, as well as a call for a complete and open investigation of 1996 campaign finance irregularities.”
“The campaign finance abuses of the current administration prove beyond a shadow of a doubt how badly reform is needed,” Mr. McCain said.
While the news media trumpeted Mr. McCain’s calls for campaign finance reform, his criticism of Mr. Gore who “has no credibility” on the issue, Mr. McCain said has been ignored by major broadcast networks.
Mr. McCain also has called on Attorney General Janet Reno to turn over to an independent counsel the question of the vice president’s missing e-mail and other matters on which Republicans have been pressing hard.
“John is finding his center of gravity as to where he can be most effective,” Mr. Hagel told The Washington Times. “And that’s in helping ensure a strong turnout for Bush that will lead to our sweeping the elections and keeping control of the Congress.”
Although some Senate Republican colleagues declined to comment on Mr. McCain’s good soldiering, others were eager to offer praise.
Sen. Sam Brownback, a conservative Kansas Republican, said that Mr. McCain and his supporters “are an important part of our [Republican] coalition” and that he is persuaded that Mr. McCain “will do his best to help us hold on to our majorities in both houses.”
Mr. Hagel, who is also on good terms with Mr. Bush, said the new McCain equilibrium “gives John a chance to keep his reform agenda alive and yet concentrate on moving in the same direction as his party.”
Campaign tacticians say that Mr. McCain’s potential value is not that he can transfer his popularity to struggling fellow Republicans. Rather, his presence on the stump and in ads will help draw voters’ attention to the candidates he will be aiding and away from their Democratic challengers.
Although Mr. McCain has yet to endorse Mr. Bush, the presumptive Republican nominee, he has not rebuffed reconciliation efforts by Mr. Bush and his campaign aides.
“His first day back in the Senate he said he would support the party’s nominee, and Governor Bush appreciates that,” said Bush campaign spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Mr. Fleischer said Mr. Bush telephoned Mr. McCain on Tuesday “on his own volition.”
He said the governor “had been thinking about a good time” to call the senator and decided to do it while in his car en route to a speech in Reston, Va.
Mr. Fleischer said many people have been helpful in building bridges between the two former nomination rivals, “including [former] Senator [Bob] Dole and the people on the staffs of both men.”
Mr. McCain has said that he intends to campaign hard on behalf of 30 to 40 Republican candidates in key districts around the country. There are a number of vulnerable Republican seats in the House, and a net loss of six in November would turn the chamber over to the control of the Democrats.
Mr. McCain’s efforts will be especially helpful in contested districts in California, Florida, Connecticut and Michigan, Republican campaign strategists said.