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McCain's Game: Keep Playing to the Centrist Crowd

Senator John McCain talks a lot about his hero, Teddy Roosevelt. But these days, the Arizona Republican seems to be stealing pages from the game book of another ex-President--Bill Clinton. Case in point: triangulation, the Clinton-honed art of playing one ideological faction off against another. Now that the Democrats' Senate takeover has cost McCain his perch as Commerce Committee chairman, he is trying to maintain his visibility by forging alliances midway between the GOP Right and the Democratic Left. And his populist agenda keeps getting longer.

The Arizona Republican is even appropriating some of Clinton's signature issues, such as a national service plan for young people that expands on the AmeriCorps program. And though Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) will succeed him as Commerce Committee chair, the pair will team up on a bill requiring airlines to improve service--or face possible lawsuits. McCain is also sponsoring a bill with Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) that would get generic versions of patented drugs on the market sooner. All those issues are on top of McCain's already lengthy to-do list, which includes: Internet privacy rules, a Patients' Bill of Rights, and a war on "corporate welfare" and Pentagon pork.

PROMISING POLLS. The goal for McCain is to broaden his coalition of independents, Reagan Democrats, and moderate Republicans. If the strategy succeeds, "John will become the linchpin of a stable center-Left coalition," says one associate. To that end, McCain is also consulting with Clinton's New Democrat advisers, such as Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, and Will Marshall, head of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist think tank. "He's seizing a market niche," says Hudson Institute fellow Marshall Wittmann, a McCain adviser.

According to pollsters, McCain's base for such a fusion agenda is already impressive. In a May 28-31 Zogby Poll, Republicans viewed McCain favorably, 58% to 22%, while independents backed him by an astounding 61% to 16%. Democrats, too, liked McCain, 49% to 21%, even though a friend notes that "he has about a 5% rating" from liberal groups. "There is a centrist movement in the nation, and McCain is chairman of the board," says pollster John Zogby.

How about a try for CEO of America Inc.? McCain says unequivocally that he has no plans to bolt the GOP or launch an independent White House bid--rumors that took wing after aides let their imaginations roam too freely over lunch. But there's little doubt McCain, 64, is keeping his options open in case Bush does a belly flop in 2004.

For now, McCain is busy being wooed by both sides of the aisle. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) flew to the Arizonan's ranch on June 2. And President Bush--whose aides have kept McCain at arm's length--hosted him at a June 5 dinner. "There's going to be a better mutual understanding," says a McCain adviser. "McCain is still fighting to be the `reformer with results' that Bush promised [he would be]."

Despite dinner with George, McCain faces continuing skepticism from the GOP. Most party elders think he's an opportunist who is lurching left to further his ambitions. Indeed, McCain is walking a political tightrope despite all the massive publicity he's receiving. "He needs to be careful not to burn bridges," says Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a McCain pal.

McCain's immediate goal is a legislative blitz that puts to rest his rep as a big talker who rarely delivers. As to his long-range ambitions, even his advisers are in the dark. "There is no grand plan," insists one. Ultimately, McCain's fortunes could depend on how much he can accomplish in coming months--and how many toes he steps on in the process. Who was that man standing beside the president of the United Steelworkers at a rainy June 6 rally on Capitol Hill? Why it was none other than Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans. Along with Treasury's Paul H. O'Neill and others, Evans has concluded that a global steel glut has reached crisis proportions for U.S. steelmakers. So an Administration task force reached a surprising conclusion: Despite Bush's free-trade evangelism, it's time for a pragmatic shot of relief.

Whether the Bushies can actually negotiate voluntary restraints remains unclear, since presumed offenders like Brazil and Russia are peddling cut-rate steel in part to keep shaky economies afloat. But the politics of the decision is clear: Bush narrowly carried steel state West Virginia, lost steel bastion Pennsylvania, and must shore up his strength in Midwestern industrial states. He also hopes to swap steel protection for Democratic support of fast-track.

As an initial step, the Administration is asking the International Trade Commission to investigate high levels of steel imports and suggest remedies. Bush can either accept the ITC's recommendations or go with curbs on a handful of products.

But slapping quotas on imports and organizing international price-setting cartels is not exactly in the GOP's free-trade lexicon. And a crackdown on steel imports poses a particular problem for Bush as he sets off on a round of foreign-policy and trade consultations in Europe. Also, overly restrictive curbs could raise the prices of U.S. cars, appliances, and machinery.

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