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McCain puts his lightsaber away

His battle against Darth Vader over, the former candidate arrives in Philadelphia ready to help the party and support Gov. Bush.

By BILL ADAIR

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000


PLYMOUTH MEETING, Pa. -- Back in February, Sen. John McCain portrayed himself as Luke Skywalker, fighting the Evil Empire of the Republican establishment. When McCain spoke of Darth Vader, many people believed he was referring to Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

But that was a long time ago, in a state far, far away. On Saturday, Luke Skywalker was singing the praises of the Empire.

In a day-long reunion trip of his Straight Talk Express, McCain had nothing but nice words for his former archenemy, saying Bush has embraced McCain's agenda for government reform.

McCain said his bus trip to the Republican National Convention was to "extoll the virtues of Gov. Bush and help him secure the election." He said Bush had been successful at reforms in Texas and that he was opening the Republican Party to more diverse ideas.

That's a big departure from February, when McCain frequently criticized Bush during his rolling press conferences aboard the Straight Talk Express, the name given to McCain's campaign bus. McCain joked that Bush's only foreign policy experience came from eating at the International House of Pancakes. He said Bush's campaign finance plan was "a joke and a fraud."

Asked on Saturday about the change in rhetoric, McCain downplayed his differences with Bush and said the Star Wars references were all in good fun.

"No, I'm not campaigning for Darth Vader," he said as his bus neared Blue Bell, Pa. "I'll be campaigning for Gov. Bush, who is running a very centrist campaign."

It was fitting that McCain's arrival music at a campaign event in Blue Bell, Penn. was not the Star Wars theme (a favorite back in February), but the nicely centrist Centerfield, in which an eager baseball player begs a coach to let him play.

Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a McCain supporter on the bus ride Saturday, said the Arizona senator is "a force to be reckoned with. His influence on issues is greater than ever before."

McCain has campaigned for 25 House Republicans and plans to help about 50 others. Republican strategists say he has been especially effective in districts that have close races because those districts tend to have more moderate voters.

Graham said McCain will be an effective voice for Bush because he is viewed as "a tell-it-like-he-sees-it guy. He says what's on his mind. Sometimes that comes back to bite us. But the public is not looking for universal agreement. They are looking for someone they can respect."

Saturday's trip on the Straight Talk Express had the feel of a class reunion, with reporters and McCain advisers chatting as if they hadn't seen each other in years. McCain's wife, Cindy McCain, videotaped some of the sessions with reporters as the bus lumbered up Interstate 95.

Bush supporters had been worried that McCain was using the trip to boost his own political fortunes, but they would have been pleasantly surprised to hear his restrained words in the back of the bus. Instead of playing Luke Skywalker, McCain was more like Yoda, the subdued and wise leader.

Sitting in a red leather recliner with an ever-present cup of coffee, McCain said he was coordinating his efforts with the Bush campaign and would be traveling with the Texas governor after the convention.

Asked what he will say today when he speaks to an alternative "Shadow Convention," McCain said he will tell them, "vote for Gov. Bush."

The trip provided a reminder of McCain's ability to draw a crowd.

More than 400 people came to a hot gymnasium in Blue Bell to hear McCain speak for a local congressional candidate. Several people waved McCain for president signs.

Yet it's not clear whether McCain supporters will follow his advice to support Bush. One of McCain's loyalists, Carol Rees, a 43-year-old former Marine from Freehold, N.J., said she wasn't sure if she could vote for Bush because of his recent choice of Dick Cheney as running mate.

"I am concerned that with Dick Cheney, the ticket has taken a turn to the right," she said.

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