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McCain plays the role of maverick in 2000 race

Sitting out the Iowa straw poll may differentiate him, but does anyone notice?

Iowa is awash with Republican presidential candidates this week, all making their final appeals for votes at a nonbinding straw poll in Ames on Saturday.

All, that is, except Arizona Sen. John McCain. The man who could consider legally changing his first name to "Maverick" is opting out of the Iowa poll. In the words of his spokesman, Senator McCain feels it would be a waste of his contributors' money on "a basically meaningless event."

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Meaningless or not - the other candidates beg to differ - McCain should come out of this weekend smelling sweeter than a loaf of home-baked Iowa bread. He would have done terribly in the straw poll anyway; he opposes the fundamental tenet of Iowa's political religion - the subsidy on ethanol - and he has no campaign organization in Iowa.

So instead of fighting and falling badly, an outcome that might have fatally tagged him as a loser in the first big event of the 2000 campaign, he is taking a pass and marshaling his resources for New Hampshire, South Carolina, and the other early nominating contests.

"He probably made the right decision on the straw poll not to go in there," says Henry Kenski, a Republican political analyst at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "People would have gone, 'Gee, I didn't realize how weak John McCain was.' But he's doing very well in South Carolina and New Hampshire."

This is classic John McCain, the Anti-Candidate. Though a Republican who typically votes conservative, he favors a reform of the campaign-finance system that would outlaw soft money, opposes Big Tobacco, and supported the bombing of Yugoslavia.

As a decorated former Vietnam prisoner of war, he gets people's attention with his rsum. And, as the other GOP candidates ruefully point out, he's a favorite of the national media - and many Democrats.

Where does all this take the pugnacious, white-haired pol? Some polls in New Hampshire, site of the nation's first presidential primary, show McCain running second only to Texas Gov. George W. Bush for the GOP nomination (though by a considerable amount) In fund-raising among Republicans, he again trails only Governor Bush (again, by a lot - almost $30 million).

Ultimately, coming in second doesn't buy you a spot in the history books. But in the early going in campaign 2000, it's the best anyone can do in the face of Bush's considerable advantages.

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The gambit for now, for all the candidates not named "Bush," is to emerge as the alternative to Bush - and then hope the front-runner stumbles.

McCain hasn't written off Iowa completely. "We'll take a look at our position after the straw poll and figure out what strategy would be best for Iowa sometime toward the end of the summer, beginning of October," says McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky.

The Iowa caucuses - the nation's first presidential nominating event, which take place early next year - do count. And if McCain chooses to skip them, too, he could put himself at a disadvantage going into the other nominating contests that follow in quick succession.

Still, it's been done before: In 1980, Ronald Reagan didn't put much effort into the Iowa caucuses, but he won the nomination anyway.

In 1988, Gov. Michael Dukakis (D) of Mass., came in third in the Iowa Democratic caucuses to Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, but went on to win the nomination. On the flip side, Congressman Gephardt's experience showed how a candidate can do well in Iowa, then fizzle.

McCain takes the whole process with some equanimity (though, among the Arizona press corps, he's known for flashes of temper).

"He's self-deprecating, he's engaging, he's funny, he's sincere and focused but doesn't take himself too seriously," says political analyst Stu Rothenberg. "He says if he loses, he'll go on, he has the rest of his life."

As a reformer, who enjoyed great favor at the recent Reform Party convention but who asserts he will remain a Republican, McCain could tap into the well of discontent voters are feeling with the two major parties. The question for him, and for all the Republican also-rans, is how to slay the dragon, George W. Bush. McCain insists he won't go negative.

So his only hope may be to step aside and let billionaire publisher Steve Forbes do the dirty work. With his bottomless bank account, and a willingness, demonstrated four years ago, to aim at the front-runner, Forbes is all the other GOP candidates' best hope for wounding Bush.

"It's a pretty good bet that Forbes is going to spend a lot of money, and if history repeats itself a lot of that would be used to run negative ads against the front-runner," says Mr. Opinsky, McCain's spokesman.

McCain, he says, has pledged to follow the 11th commandment of the GOP: Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.

But the unspoken corollary is that all candidates are happy to reap the rewards of another Republican's decision not to take that pledge. And McCain plans to be there with them.

In the meantime, he is maintaining his status as a high-profile senator. He recently offered legislation to eliminate the ethanol subsidy, to fund in part a nationwide school voucher program.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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