McCain Parachutes Into Calif.

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It's 7:30 a.m. in a cramped ballroom at the Marriott in Torrance, Calif., a middle-class suburb of Los Angeles. About 60 women and men, most wearing business suits, have paid $1,000 each to eat an unremarkable Thursday morning breakfast buffet and to bask in the presence of a man described repeatedly as a "hero."

The person throwing out that word over and over is the same man who's name is plastered across a banner on the wall: Congressman Steve Kuykendall. But the Republican running for re-election knows he's not the man the television crews, newspaper reporters, and check-writers have come to see. That distinction belongs to Kuykendall's guest, the aforementioned hero and former Vietnam POW, John McCain.

The Arizona senator may have dropped out of the race for president, but he's still running, from San Jose to San Diego, in a two-day sweep through the Golden State this week.

McCain's presence at the Kuykendall event allows the candidate to draw attention to his own record as a Vietnam veteran, and to the fact that his daughter - like McCain - graduated from the Naval Academy. Those are valuable credentials this district, one of America's leading defense and aerospace areas.

"(John McCain) and I shared a time when we were both in Vietnam together," Kuykendall said in introducing McCain. "He has already reprimanded me for not coming to get him."

"I'd like to remind you that it doesn't take a lot of talent to be shot down," says McCain. Microphone in hand, he slips easily back to the one-liners and straight-talking charm that served him well on the campaign trail.

McCain then gets down to business, telling the group there's a lot at stake in the race. Kuykendall, a one-term incumbent, won the March primary by a slim 43 to 41 percent margin. He faces a well-funded competitor in Jane Harman, who held the seat for three terms before giving it up to run for governor in 1988. There is little doubt this will be a tight race.

Neither Kuykendall nor McCain are shy about pointing that out, each reminding the crowd that this race could be ground zero in the battle for control of the next Congress.

"What happens in the California, happens in the West and happens in the nation," says McCain.

Accordingly, Kuykendall is not the only pol getting a boost:

McCain spent Tuesday night at a Los Angeles fund raiser for Rep. James Rogan, a prosecutor in the Clinton impeachment proceedings. Rogan won his district in 1998 with just 51 percent of the vote. But in March, Rogan lost the "beauty contest" primary to his Democratic rival. McCain also spent time this week in the San Jose area stumping for State Assemblyman Jim Cunneen and Rep. Tom Campbell. Campbell faces an uphill battle in trying to unseat Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and Cunneen hopes to win Campell's House seat. While in California, McCain also stumped for San Diego area congressman Brian Bilbray, a three-term incumbent in a swing distict.

This list of candidates on McCain's itinerary reads like a hit list (or wish list) for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. All are considered vulnerable, and each has shown an increase of independent voters. In Rogan's district, 15 percent of the electorate does not align itself with either major party. In Bilbray's and Kuykendall's districts, the number is closer to 20 percent.

And that's where McCain, who won almost a fourth of the popular vote in the California primary, comes in. About 750,000 registered Democrats crossed over to vote Republican in that election; almost two-thirds of them voted for McCain.

Steve Kuykendall told reporters he hopes McCain can help reassure those independent voters that "their thoughts and their interests are still being looked after."

Kuykendall also pointed out the Senator's "star power" will help raise campaign cash. He could also keep both donors and voters interested if George W. Bush opts to abandon the state in the fall. On this recent California trip, McCain raised close to $300,000 for the four congressional candidates, none of which - McCain points out - was soft money. He also attracted invaluable free media coverage.

"People who run for congress in an area like Los Angeles are nearly invisible," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior associate at the School of Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate University in California. But this breakfast for Kuykendall supporters attracted four television crews and a half dozen print reporters.

Jeffe says the GOP has recognized that McCain can also help strengthen the party's image, especially in California, where an "R" by a candidates name can signal divisiveness.

For his part, McCain claims no credit for boosting anyone's odds for winning. "Elections are won by candidates, not by me parachuting in," he says.

But these high-profile parachute landings will win McCain continued visibility, political chits, and keep his image intact as an independent voice within the Republican party. All will be necessary for him to run again in 2004 if Bush fails in his bid for the White House.