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?

In Congressional District 1, where Sam Coppersmith's departure gives the Republicans a prime opportunity to reclaim McCain's old seat, state Senator Matt Salmon is widely regarded as McCain's pick.

Salmon downplays the relationship between fund raising and endorsements, even though McCain's name on the invitation to Salmon's December Washington, D.C., fund raiser was a boon.

"Oh, golly, I don't know," says Salmon when asked about the most valuable aspect of McCain's backing. "I've never run for Congress before--and he has--and giving me his insights is real valuable. That's the best thing."

Aw, shucks. The true value of any endorsement--public or private--takes the form of cold, hard cash. A senior-senator-in-waiting who can tap that cash from political action committees and wealthy individuals can swing an election, especially in races in which no incumbent is running. Congressional Districts 1 and 4--the latter which is being vacated by Jon Kyl in his bid for the Senate--fill that bill.

McCain's in-your-face admonishments are a departure from the tradition of bygone Arizona Republican stalwarts such as Barry Goldwater and John Rhodes, whose influence was as constant yet unobtrusive as the Arizona sunshine. They were encouraging, but not frenetic, in their support of local GOP candidates. If someone got out of line, it was GOP kingpin Harry Rosensweig, not the elected senator or representative, who did the enforcing.

In the Goldwater days, it was who you knew, not how much you could raise, that won you a seat. "It was a different era," says Bruce Wright, legislative scholar and chief of staff to former U.S. representative Mo Udall. (Wright's now with the Office of the President at the University of Arizona.) "They [Goldwater, Rhodes and Udall] all grew out of a time, you know, [when] the very best of our state leaders ran for congressional office. They held those offices for a very long time; they developed relationships. They came out of pioneer families and had all known each other for a good number of years."

McCain, by contrast, had lived in Arizona less than two years before he ran for Congress. He moved to the state from Washington, D.C.; his second wife, Cindy, is princess in the local Hensley & Company beer-distributing kingdom. After just two terms in Congress, McCain leapfrogged his congressional colleague, old-timer Bob Stump, to land in the Senate.

McCain may be concentrating on grassroots politics because his star was long ago eclipsed in the nation's capital. During the Eighties, he was one of the darlings of the national party, a courageous aviator who survived a North Vietnamese POW camp. His name was floated for top governmental posts. He spoke at the 1988 Republican National Convention. Some believed he was vice presidential material--hell, presidential material, maybe.

That all changed when McCain was tagged one of the Keating Five. In 1992, Arizona voters forgave him for island-hopping with Charlie Keating, giving McCain an easy reelection victory over a neophyte Democrat. While McCain's still viewed as a solid soldier--he even finagled some speaking time at his party's 92 national convention--the taint of the Keating scandal may never fade from his national persona.

So with Keating Five cohort and Arizona delegation dean Dennis DeConcini preparing to ride off into the sunset, McCain is rushing in to fill the void. He's getting as many of his players into the game as he can.

The March edition of the Arizona Republican Caucus newsletter speaks to the good will McCain is amassing: "Love him or hate him, McCain does more for Republican candidates in this state--at all levels--than any other Republican official around." It's ironic that John McCain is sticking his nose into statewide and local political races. He makes no secret of his preference for national and international issues. In the days prior to his 1992 general election, while other candidates were feverishly pressing Arizona flesh, McCain was abroad, posturing on the POW-MIA issue in Vietnam.

Staff tends to parochial matters; McCain can't be bothered.

"I must admit," he says, "that some of the mayor of Show Low's issues are not the most exciting and stimulating to me, okay?" Okay. But gubernatorial races apparently are.

Fife Symington and McCain have been tight for years, sharing the same Washington, D.C., political consultant, J. Brian Smith, and the same D.C. attorney, John Dowd.

The links between the senator's and the governor's staffs have strengthened significantly in the last year. Wes Gullett, who masterminded McCain's 1992 reelection victory, left the senator in 1993 after seven years to become Symington's chief of staff. Gullett is given much of the credit for righting Symington's reeling vessel, and for Symington's consequent improvement from a deathly standing in opinion polls. And--oh, yes--Gullett's wife is Deb Amend, McCain's state director.

McCain's decision to cast his lot with Symington may be one reason his relationship with Attorney General Grant Woods--a rival of Symington's--has cooled (or, perhaps, the cause of it). Given McCain's penchant for aligning himself with winners, the rift might be considered surprising.

Smith, who, in addition to Symington and McCain, also counts Woods among his clients, says he can't begin to understand the dynamic among the three. "It would take someone with the training of a psychologist or a psychology major to probably begin to make some sense of it," Smith says.

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