McCain Storms The GOP Scene

Until recently, the Republican strategy was to unite behind George W. Bush, raise as much money for him as possible, and make his nomination as the Republican presidential candidate inevitable. But the GOP wasn't ready for John McCain, a scrappy fighter whose critics call him an angry maverick and a loudmouth. Correspondent Dan Rather recently spent time with the senator from Arizona.

Over the past few months, McCain has upset his party's carefully-laid plans to anoint George W. Bush as its candidate. He's done it without much help from his fellow Republicans. Only four of the 55 Republican senators support his candidacy.

"If you want the status quo in Washington, do not support John McCain," he says.

Until recently, McCain also had little support in New Hampshire. "Our first poll here in New Hampshire showed me at two per cent with a five per cent margin of error," he says with a laugh. "Now what that could mean is three per cent were actually against me."

Now, though, McCain is surging in New Hampshire. The crowds want him to sign his best-selling book. And most polls show him ahead of Bush in the primary, which is especially important because it is the country's first.

McCain sees himself as a reformer. "I want to reform government," he says. "I want to reform the military. I want to reform education so that every parent has a choice to send their kids to the school of their choosing. But I don't believe you can do that until you clean up this system which has had such a pernicious effect and shut so many Americans out of the legislative process."

McCain, who calls his campaign the Straight Talk Express, says that his first mission is to clean special interest money out of Washington. He says that both parties are beholden to special interests, which clogs up Capitol Hill.

"You and I could sit down in 15 minutes and come up with a patient's bill of rights," he told Rather. "But yet we remain gridlocked on it. Why should that be? It's because the special interests exercise such undue influence."

A decorated Navy flyer and prisoner of war in Vietnam, McCain is equally critical of President Clinton's foreign and military policies. He blames these mistakes on the president's lack of military experience.

McCain, here on his campaign bus talking to reporters, is known for his candor.
"This is the first administration in history that has a president of the United States, a secretary of defense, a secretary of state and a national security advisor, none of whom ever spent one minute wearing a uniform of the Armed Frces of the United States, " he says. "My friends, that's going to change."

McCain is blunt and plain-spoken. On his campaign bus, he holds almost nothing back from reporters. Most candidates hide from journalists. McCain can't get enough of them.

But McCain's campaign has also been distracted by rumors that he is hot-headed. At a recent campaign meeting, one aide jokingly outlined his image: "[He's] a screaming hot-headed maniac killed a guy on the way here to debate exploding every minute."

Recently, Arizona's governor, Jane Hull, said that McCain had to learn to keep control of his temper. "Everybody has to keep control of their temper," he says. "I've had some very frank conversations with her, which I've had with many people."

McCain's staff is convinced the Bush campaign is spreading those rumors about his fitness to be president, and is suggesting that he has some psychological scars from his days as a POW.

McCain has tried to stop the whispering campaign by releasing a stack of medical and psychological evaluations, all of which say he adjusted well after his ordeal in Vietnam.

McCain admits that he is thin-skinned, and has been since he was young.

Check out John McCain's official campaign site.
"It begins, so I'm told, with my mother when I was a very small baby, that I used to hold my breath when I became angry until I passed out," he says, laughing. "The doctor's remedy was to have a tub of cold water to dunk me in when I did that. So I guess it goes back to the earliest stages of childhood."

When he was growing up, McCain says, he never lived in the same place for more than a year until he was in high school. His father, like his grandfather, was an admiral in the U.S. Navy and the family was always on the move. McCain followed in both men's footsteps to the Naval Academy, where he broke every rule in the book, almost flunked out, and finished fifth from the bottom of his class.

"The punishment in those days for infractions was to march with a rifle on your shoulder on the back terrace, " McCain remembers. "And one time, some time during my third year, I figured I'd marched to Baltimore 37 times and back."

During the Vietnam War, he sought active duty. During a bombing raid over Hanoi, McCain was shot down. He broke his leg and both arms in the crash, and was captured by North Vietnamese and thrown into prison.

There, McCain was denied medical treatment and frequently tortured. He spent half of his five and a half years in Hanoi in solitary confinement.

"The worst was clearly when I was reduced to a point where I wrote and signed a war crimes confession, " he says now. "[That] was clearly an still remains one of the greatest failures of a number of failures that I have experienced in my life."

Issues 2000 has compiled a list of McCain's view on various subjects.
In 1973, McCain was released from prison. Upon returning to the U.S., he was treated as a war hero, which helped him get elected to the House and then the Senate. There's, he's had a very Republican, very conservative voting record. He has never voted for a tax increase, and is against gun control. He is pro-life. "My record is based on my moral belief that life begins at conception," he says.

In the 1980s, McCain's political career was almost destroyed when the Senate investigated his actions on behalf of Charles Keating, a major campaign contributor who was also a savings and loan operator. Keating's businesses went bust, and ended up costing U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars. Keating went to prison on fraud charges. McCain eventually escaped from the investigation with a slap on the wrist.

McCain says his experience with the Keating affair, drove him to change the way Washington works by reducing the flood of money that pours into political campaigns. But he has had no support from Bush and little support anywhere in Washington, especially from party leaders like Senator Mitch McConnell.

McCain concedes McConnell has beaten him time and again, especially in his battle to regulate and tax the tobacco industry. The tobacco industry spent between $40 to $50 million on ads against McCain and poured soft money into the Republican campaign.

"It clearly has the appearance of corruption," McCain says. "But so do a lot of other things in American politics today."

When McCain talks like that about his own party, and when he promotes campaign finance reform with a Democrat, as he did last week with Bill Bradley, it is not surprising that only four Republican senators are supporting his presidential campaign.

McCain says that he has an "acute sense of right and wrong," and that he has sometimes overreacted when he thought his colleagues were being hypocrites. He says he realizes that this may have cost him support within his own party.

"I understand that," he says. "But I can't run a campaign any other way, and I'm certainly not afraid of losing."

Broadcast produced by Tom Anderson; Web site produced by David Kohn;