Please permit me a quick confession: Tuesday, for the first time in my life, I wished I was a Republican. I would have taken the Grand Old Party's ballot, squinted hard to find John McCain's name in the teeny-tiny type and I would have voted for all the Arizona senator's delegates.
Then I would have begged the good Lord to forgive me.
I mean, on issues large and small, McCain does not think what I think. He says he is a Ronald Reagan Republican. Ugh. He opposes abortion. He sounds too bellicose on foreign affairs. He dislikes a waiting period on gun sales and he opposed a prohibition on assault weapons. This stuff is repugnant and retrograde.
So why do I like him?
He is the only candidate in this race who shows a genuine willingness to break up today's political buddy system -- an operation of big dollars and scripted candidates that serves mainly itself.
And he has plugged into something powerful on the American political scene, even if it wasn't strong enough to get him through Super Tuesday without taking on major damage. The fact is: A growing number of voters want something more than a ventriloquist's dummy as a candidate. And in the next four years, this demand can only grow.
I first noticed this force one recent Sunday morning on ABC-TV as I watched George Will question Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. Not only did I enjoy the specter of the prim, bow-tied Will doing verbal battle with a man who once wore feather boas in the wrestling ring; I discovered to my horror that I appreciated the directness of many of Ventura's answers. The guy wasn't playing all the usual games. Suddenly, that meant more than I ever thought it would.
It has been the same with McCain.
For starters, he administered some rude shock therapy to New York State's Republican bosses. He made them jump as he demanded, and won, a place on the Republican ballot. Even Gov. George Pataki -- who can seem as benign as milk and cookies -- wound up looking bad when he and the party's big shots tried to rig the ballot for his buddy, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Meanwhile, I admire the way McCain whacked the religious right after Bush gave it a big sloppy kiss in the South Carolina primary. These are the very people who helped run government off the rails during the 1998-1999 impeachment follies. They wear their intolerance like a badge, and some take a particularly dim view of blacks, Catholics and Jews. But with votes and money, they have managed to terrify otherwise decent Republicans.
McCain put them in the crosshairs last month.
''Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance,'' he proclaimed in a speech, ''whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.'' It was a nice shot at Bush as well as a deft jab at Democratic contenders Al Gore and Bill Bradley.
Then there is campaign finance reform. As you probably know, McCain's dogged push to end this eternal scandal has made him about as popular as a process server among congressional colleagues. He wants more controls on the system, and he would slap a ban on soft money. The problem? This could force politicians to work for the voters instead of deep-pocketed interest groups.
Bottom line: After an endless parade of poll-driven phonies, I, like many others, want a candidate who speaks in real words (not sound bites) offers real ideas (not slogans), and makes promises he (just possibly) intends to keep. Ah, well, McCain seemed to have such fine potential.
The other guys, the ones who are starting to look inevitable now, cast some dreary shadows.
Bush? He can switch from a ''compassionate conservative'' to the sweetheart of Bob Jones University in a blink.
Gore? He is a former moderate who pitches himself as a futurist, yet panders to the ancient Democratic coalition that has been wheezing around for decades. On union issues alone, he is running a campaign that would make John L. Lewis proud.
Then there is Bradley, poor guy. He had a lot of fine but complex ideas that weren't quite ready for prime time. And he couldn't stir a crowd. May his candidacy rest in peace.
So McCain took a big hit Tuesday. Maybe this year isn't the watershed. Maybe it will come later.
But at some point, I think, American voters will demand a politics that is responsive not to the whims of wealthy and highly organized cliques, but to the ordinary needs of everyday folks. McCain is onto something. Whatever happens to the Arizona senator, this thing isn't going away.
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