Is Sen. John McCain really thinking about bolting from the Republican Party or just having a little fun at the expense of his former rival, George W. Bush?
The Arizona Republican is playing his current political role close to the vest. He denied any interest in running for the presidency in 2004 or leaving the GOP as he wrapped up a weekend in which he entertained both the Senate's Democratic leader and an influential member of the Democratic Leadership Council at his Sedona, Ariz., home.
It strains credibility to imagine that the Arizona meeting between McCain and the Democrats, billed strictly as a social event, didn't involve some political talk. Arizona is not usually a prime vacation destination in the heat of June. The temperature prediction for last Sunday in Phoenix was 101 degrees.
There's no question the maverick Republican, who has broken ranks with the president on campaign reform, the tax cut bill and patients' rights, is willing to challenge Bush on the issues. By flirting with the Democrats and with those would support him as an independent, McCain also attracts considerable media coverage, just as the Bush administration is trying to get its own message out on a variety of issues.
The former Vietnam POW with the glib sense of humor is a media magnet and he knows it. He can be a considerable distraction to the Bush agenda when he wants to be.
Bush, still stinging from the defection of Vermont Sen. James Jeffords to the Democrats, even telephoned McCain at the senator's ranch, just to say howdy. Popularity is like catnip to a politician. McCain must feel like the prettiest debutante at the ball, the one who's trying to find time to dance with every suitor.
Whether McCain's flirtation with the idea of challenging Bush for the White House in 2004 turns into a full-fledged romance will be the subject of considerable speculation in the next few years. McCain's age and his current high level of popularity could very likely convince him that the 2004 White House race is his best shot. The 64-year-old McCain would be 71 if he waited until the 2008 presidential contest.
Many incumbent presidents have been plagued with party upstarts who made their political lives miserable. Jimmy Carter had Teddy Kennedy. Gerald Ford had Ronald Reagan. George W. Bush's father had Pat Buchanan.
For George W. Bush it looks like that thorn in the side is John McCain.
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