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?

"Councilman DiCiccio has started his term by engaging in a witch hunt," Morgan wrote. "My only 'offense' that precipitated my selection for this witch hunt was to be audacious enough to support DiCiccio's . . . opponent in this last election."

DiCiccio insists he's his own man. He points to his support of Thelda Williams for interim mayor, and of recall target Salomon Leija, both Democrats--and most certainly not potential cogs in the McCain machine.

The DiCiccio-Dubs race was hardly the first time McCain and Johnson had butted heads. They sparred over the Indian School land deal, and have maintained a running scuffle over McCain's pet project: a regional airport.

When McCain took an active interest in the city council election, some observers, including Johnson, assumed he was lining up regional-airport support.

None of the three candidates McCain backed in the council race has ever been on the record in solid support of the regional airport, although DiCiccio says he wants to keep all options open. And McCain says he's taken the regional airport off his agenda for now.

Johnson, who resigned as mayor last week to seek the Democratic nomination for governor, isn't buying that. "It's [the regional airport] not off the agenda of the people who would like to see it in the East Valley, and I would just lay you odds that if you would wait until after the 94 election for governor, that it is one of those things that is going to find its way back out front on the agenda."

Through his position on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, McCain has made inquiries into the inner workings of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. McCain insists he's just doing his job; after the Keating debacle, he's careful to question everything, he says. Johnson supporters accuse McCain of trying to make Sky Harbor, Johnson and city staff look bad in order to push his regional-airport concept.

"Unfortunately," Johnson says, "John has a way of making a lot of people afraid. Even for me, I mean, I have no doubt that there will be retribution for what he reads and what I'm saying. I mean, there's just no doubt, and so there's a great deal of trepidation with me in dealing with the answers to these questions, because he's a guy that doesn't forget and he goes after ya."

It is not pleasant when John McCain goes after ya.

Over the years, political reporters have collected McCain tantrum tales the way sportswriters tally Suns statistics.

McCain is fond of saying he doesn't suffer fools gladly, that he has no time for "boring, well-intentioned people."

At the same time, he has come to recognize his temper as a liability. He and his allies--including Arizona junior-senator hopeful Jon Kyl--promise it's under control.

"I'll acknowledge that early on, John could be pretty fiery sometimes. But I think that is diminishing, has diminished over time, and I don't think you'll see very much of that now," Kyl says.

But news of the latest McCain outbursts--like the one with Dowling--still makes the rounds in both Republican and Democratic circles.

"It was a little bit like when a 5-year-old throws a tantrum and . . . you don't acknowledge it because it only fuels it," says one recipient of a recent McCain tirade.

Lately, McCain and his staffers have made it a habit to issue apologies to select recipients of the senator's ire. That doesn't make the outbursts any less volatile.

Last fall, McCain interrupted a meeting about the proposed downtown Phoenix baseball stadium and--while Jerry Colangelo looked on, perplexed by the distraction--proceeded to lash Democratic political consultant Jay Thorne.

Thorne's sin: He had gone on the record in New Times, calling Jay Heiler the "Nazi of the week" on Governor Fife Symington's staff.

Thorne chose not to comment on McCain's broadside. As he often does when confronted with tantrum anecdotes, McCain laughs when reminded of the incident with Thorne.

"He got a little heat, and then I said, 'Look, it's over,'" the senator says. ". . . I think the worst thing you can do in politics is hold a grudge."

That may not work in all cases--consider the feud with Paul Johnson--but it holds true in some. Political junkies will remember that former U.S. representative Sam Steiger penned an article in 1985 for Prescott's Northern Arizona Life (later reprinted by New Times) in which he excoriated McCain.

In part, Steiger wrote: "[McCain] is unprepared by either training or experience to represent Arizona, or, indeed, any other region of this country. He was elected after a difficult and expensive primary, largely because he had been a prisoner of war in the Vietnam conflict. Let us examine that precept.

"In my little war, Korea, if you got captured, it meant you had screwed up. If you stayed captured for any length of time, it meant you had not tried to escape, and therefore you spent a great deal of time explaining why you did not escape. One would think it would offend the public, the constant repetition of that failure in combat. Mr. McCain has never failed to invoke his POW experience at any gathering, regardless of the advertised topic. In the past, that would have been the height of bad taste. Now it is clearly a recipe for political success."

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