Statesman or Henchman?

He's already the state's GOP power broker. He'll soon be Arizona's senior senator. Will the volatile John McCain Rule by fear or respect?

United States Senator John McCain is live on KTUC-AM talk radio in Tucson. He's speaking with a caller named Rosemary, an elderly woman who's deeply concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. "You make some excellent points, Rosemary, and I wish that everybody were as concerned about the issue as you are. And I appreciate the call," McCain says, his voice oozing sincerity and confidence.

He announces a station break. As a canned commercial fills the studio, McCain removes his headphones and leans over, conspiratorially. "I believe that Rosemary has a bumper sticker that says 'Visualize World Peace,'" he says with a sneer.

Back at work in KTUC's foam-walled studio, McCain chomps the same piece of peppermint gum for three hours, answering question after question after question from listeners. Bosnia. Whitewater. Vietnam. His white hair is combed sideways over his head, clamped down by the oversize black headphones. His fleshy neck pours out over the top of a crumpled white dress shirt and striped tie.

Although his demeanor is even and cordial throughout the radio shift, his hands betray the storm that lurks beneath the surface. His hands wring constantly, as if every bit of nervous energy, every distraction, every unspoken slam, is channeled through them.

He certainly doesn't want to repeat his performance of a couple of months ago on Pat Murphy's KTAR-AM talk show in Phoenix. After McCain left the air, Murphy was inundated with complaints from listeners who believed McCain had been unduly rude to an elderly female caller who disagreed with McCain's views.

"I just have to depend on what the callers said," says Murphy, who no longer has a tape of the exchange. "They were more upset than I was."

There will be no such complaints after the Tucson Q and A. John McCain stays under control. That's what elder statesmen do, and that's what he intends to become. So it's something he and his staff work on.

He's choosing his fights carefully, so on the air, Rosemary gets stroked.

Sandra Dowling is another story.

As hundreds of Arizona's Republican faithful milled around the ballroom of a downtown hotel on a Saturday in January, gossiping and strategizing before the general session of the 1994 GOP state meeting was to convene, Dowling, the Maricopa County superintendent of schools, made the mistake of making eye contact with John McCain.

McCain, who will soon be Arizona's senior U.S. senator, wanted to talk to Dowling about her vocal support of GOP gubernatorial hopeful Barbara McConnell Barrett. McCain is a committed Fife Symington man.

In what Dowling describes as "a heated, face-to-face discussion," McCain openly berated Dowling for her allegiance to Barrett. Support Symington, he commanded, or there would be consequences. Have at me, countered Dowling, who has never been a big Symington fan. As their voices rose above the otherwise staid gathering, onlookers backed away.

Dowling recalls, "He told me that I was going to suffer the political wrath. . . . He was just flat-out mad."

McCain laughs when reminded of his tiff with Dowling. He maintains that Dowling, not he, lost composure. "Sandra Dowling was probably more rattled than Sandra Dowling has been her entire life," he says between chuckles.

"When I told Sandra Dowling there were consequences . . . I did it because I think it's in the best interest of the state and the party," the senator adds. "I have to do what I think is best."

Despite attempts by the party's fixers to keep the primary path uncluttered for Symington, Barrett, a former federal aviation official and now a local attorney, is in the GOP governor's race. That hasn't stopped McCain from informing Barrett herself that she is making a mistake.

"I told her [Barrett] there are consequences associated with causing other candidates to be defeated," McCain says.

The bylaws of the Arizona Republican party do not provide for anyone with the title of "Enforcer." But that hasn't stopped John McCain from appointing himself to the post. He is the distributor of consequences. He keeps the lesser party players in line. If they cooperate, Republicans seeking lower offices can expect a helping hand. If they don't cooperate, they can expect a backhand.

McCain, 57, is not up for reelection til 1998, yet he is as big a player as any candidate this political season. The senator offers his name, his staff, his advice and his contributor lists to Republican candidates at all levels of elective office.

Survey the political landscape, and McCain or McCain's people are evident in every nook and cranny.

McCain's resources make him a formidable player. He is solidifying his position by paying almost as much attention to other people's races as he does to his own. Republican candidates clamor for his endorsement, because if they get it, they have an inside track on elective office.

He insists his blessing doesn't mean much. "It's almost like a pacifier, a comfort. . . . People don't give a damn," McCain says.

But McCain recalls how much an endorsement from Paul Fannin meant to his own first congressional race, back in 1982. And while McCain has hesitated to hand out a public endorsement in the fall's contested primaries--a big no-no, particularly in Republican politics--he's playing favorites behind the scenes.

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