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McCain's Navy Adrift

They were called "McCainiacs," or enlistees in "McCain's Navy." They were passionate, loyal, some of them borderline fanatical.

Supporters of Arizona Senator John McCain's presidential bid caused a well-funded party favorite to run scared and spawned waves of energized first-time voters. Some of those supporters have moved on since McCain conceded the GOP nomination to George W. Bush after Super Tuesday. But for others, it's as though the music stopped and they're still scrambling for a chair.

The majority of McCain-or-nothing supporters have taken refuge in groups like the Draft McCain 2000 committee. This grassroots organization seeks to build a party machine for McCain just in case he decides to run. Like in an unrequited crush, they tell themselves a lot could change in seven months. And besides, hasn't McCain kept the flame alive by suspending and not shutting down his campaign?

What should McCain supporters do? Sound off on the Campaign 2000 bulletin board!
That optimism (or blind infatuation) suffered a rebuff when McCain went to Minnesota to meet with Governor Jesse Ventura. The Draft McCain committee had hoped that the nation's most successful third party candidate in recent years might be able to talk their man into at least considering running for president as an independent.

No dice.

"The Republican Party is my home," said McCain in St. Paul, Minnesota. He'd said that before, but the Draft McCain had hoped at least a sign of tacit encouragement.

"I'm not sure where we're at on this thing," said Doug Friedline, a co-founder of Draft McCain 2000 and Ventura's former campaign manager. He had planned a new conference for the day after McCain's Minnesota visit to promote his group's website, its new 800-number and its national strategy.

That news conference is now on hold indefinitely.

"We're still moving forward, but very cautously at this point," said Friedline. He said he spoke with McCain only briefly and says the Senator told him he was honored by the group's efforts.

"He didn't tell me to stop or continue," added Friedline.

What's a McCainiac to do now?

In California, Joel Fox made his peace with the primary outcome last month. A registered Republican, Fox was a co-chair of McCain's Golden State campaign and has been involved in California politics for 20 years.

"His story and his character attracted me first. I had more fun with McCain than I've had for a long time in politics," said Fox, who now plans to vote for Bush and may even work for the Texan's campaign.

Fox believes the younger voters and first-timers attracted to McCain will be the most disillusioned and the hardest to reengage in the political process. They were more attracted to McCain as a person than to his platform.

"They need more than the message. They need the senator himself."

To remedy that, Fox hopes Bush will reach out to the senator so that he will campaign on Bush's behalf. "I really do believe the ball is in Governor Bush's court," said Fox.

Neal Zaslavsky, a Los Angeles County area coordinator for McCain's campaign, volunteered six weeks of his time to the Arizona senator.

But would he devote his time to drafting John McCain to run as an independent?

"It's nice to hold on to dreams. But you also have to look at the reality," said Zaslavsky, who was attracted to McCain because he had "the charisma and style we had not seen in a political candidate since Ronald Reagan."

Zaslavsky will vote for Bush, because he says the Texas governor is not very different from McCain ideologically. He still receives 25 to 30 e-mails a week from McCain supporters seeking help in getting McCain on the ballot, threatening not to vote for Bush and expressing worry that McCain will become Bush's running mate.

Are these supporters being strung along by mixed messages from McCain, who said last week he was glad his supporters had not surrendered?

"No," said Zaslavsky. "He's saying, 'I'm glad you're keeping these issues alive.'"

Patty Bourne, a 27-year-old writer who works in public relations, was a volunteer coordinator for McCain in Los Angeles County. She says she has yet to find "admirable leadership qualities in either candidate" left to choose from. "Whichever way I vote, I will vote holding my nose," she said.

Bourne would support McCain's run as an independent and has a hard time understanding his Republican Party ties. "Why are you being loyal to a party that's not being supportive to you?" she asked rhetorically.

Conservative political observer and columnist Arianna Huffington recently opined about a McCain enrun for president, describing herself as suffering from "Battered Voter Syndrome".

"You know your man is never going to change, but you keep going back, hoping this time will be different," wrote Huffington.

After that column, Huffington said she received hundreds of e-mails from despondent McCain supporters. A 73-year old-grandmother wrote that she "worked like a 21-year-old for McCain ... and I have nowhere to go." Another said, "we have no choice this election year." A former volunteer asked, "Do I vote for someone or against someone? For me the choice is still a losing one."

Huffington, who actively encourages citizen participation in the political process, said reforming the system will take an effort comparable to the civil rights movement.

"Those people drawn to (McCain) will have to accept that it will take a movementÂ…to change the system."

People like Don Hess, another co-founder of the Draft McCain 2000 committee, would likely join such a movement, if only his candidate were willing, too.

Hess, the former regional coordinator for McCain's California campaign, feels no other candidate posesses McCain's level of character, integrity and honesty. "We all believe John's the only candidate that is worthy of holding the office," he said.

Before McCain, the last presidential candidate Hess worked for was John F. Kennedy forty years ago. Though a registered Republican, Hess voted for Democrats JFK in 1960 and Jimmy Carter in 1976. "I've always voted for the man," he said.

Hess said the polls show McCain is electable in a three-way race, and he's willing to do whatever it takes to help him get on the ballot in all 50 states.

If that doesn't happen, Hess says he'll stay home in November.

"Personally, I don't see any other choice."

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