What Now For McCain?

He Tells Dan Rather He'll Support GOP Nominee

What now for Senator John McCain? Will he support George W. Bush? Would he be Bush's running mate, even after the bitter battle for the Republican presidential nomination?

Since dropping out of the race almost two weeks ago, McCain has said nothing. He took a vacation in the South Pacific. He returned a few days ago, and Monday in an exclusive interview, he talked to Dan Rather.

McCain says that he will definitely endorse George W. Bush for president. He is not sure when, however.

"I've always said I will support the nominee of my party," says McCain. "I'm a loyal Republican. The Republican Party is my home. [Bush] is the nominee of the party. He won. I will not demand anything from him. I think that we will have discussions, and I think there's no doubt that I would support the nominee of the party. Exactly how that happens, and under what circumstances and my degree of enthusiasm are questions that are yet to be resolved."

That may not sound like a warm endorsement, but Bush hasn't been exactly gracious in victory. In an interview last week, Bush said he had learned nothing from, and would make no concessions to, McCain. Asked about the many new voters McCain had attracted, Bush said, "Well, then how come he didn't win?"

Read Web-exclusive excerpts from Rather's interview with McCain .
Asked about this by Rather, McCain responds diplomatically, saying that Bush has "conducted himself well" since winning the nomination. But McCain also suggests that to win, Bush will have to attract McCain voters. "There [are] large groups of voters out there that will decide this general election. And those large groups of voters, not according to my instincts but actual polling data, are attracted to, and will support, a reform agenda."

But even though Bush will likely need McCain's supporters, he hasn't phoned since McCain returned from vacation.

McCain professes patience and says that he is not disappointed. "I know that he's been very busy with formulating the campaign against Al Gore," he says. "And I'm sure that there will be discussions."

The former candidate also says that he is not surprised that Bush didn't call after his defeat in the Michigan primary. "It's just a minor kind of thing," McCain says of Bush's failure to call. "You just don't let something like that affect you in any way. You just move on."

McCain's fellow Republicans in the Senate are communicating with him, albeit delicately. McCain is not a hero to many of his Republican colleagues. Nevertheless they made an effort to appear friendly when he returned to Capitol Hill this week still preaching the gospel of reform.

"Under no circumstances will we abandon the reforagenda," he said then. "I intend to lead it. I come back to the Senate, if I may say, in a self-serving way, with a great deal more influence than I had when I left. And I will never ever, ever, ever give up."

McCain says, though, that he will continue to work with his GOP colleagues but on reform. "The Republican party can either reform and take up the reform agenda and become the party of reform, or they will be lost in the dustbin of history," he says.

The senator says he is not worried that the GOP leadership does not agree with him and does not like him either, he says. "At the end of the day, all politicians understand that the real key to maintaining power is being in tune with the electorate," he says.

"So I think the leadership of my party (is) very interested in adopting this reform agenda, if not based on principle, although many of them are based on principle, but from the practical aspects of American politics," he says.

McCain says he is proud of his campaign. But he admits he made mistakes during the primary season that hurt him.

For example, during the South Carolina primary, he ran an ad comparing Bush to President Clinton and saying that voters could trust neither. Many observers criticized the ad. In retrospect, McCain says, the ad may have been a mistake.

McCain says that he does not regret making a speech attacking the religious right, a move that also caused controversy.

"That speech had to be made, and it had to be made before the primary," he says. "One of the reasons why our party has lost its way is because of the leadership, or the assumption of leadership by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. And these people have not been good for our party, and I don't believe they have practiced the politics of inclusion. I think they've practiced the politics of exclusion. That speech needed to be made, even if it may have done damage to my campaign."

McCain isn't making many apologies, and he doesn't seem to want any either, despite a primary campaign that at times took on a harsh, sometimes personal tone.

There were been allegations that before the South Carolina primary Bush supporters spread scurrilous rumors about McCain.

Although McCain was angry at the time, he has put it behind him, he says.

"I can forgive," he says. "And I want to emphasize one other point: For me to look back in anger over what happened in this campaign would not only be a bit of self-pity but it also would be very nonproductive."

McCain says that as a loyal Republican, he has to back Bush. But how hard will he campaign? McCain is a student of history, and he knows that in 1976 Gerald Ford beat Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination. Reagan endorsed the nominee, but without enthusiasm. Ford lost.

The senator isn't sure how the current situation will play out, he says. "I don't know exactly what's going to transpire here," he says. "What's going through my mind is to do everything I can to make sure that Al Gore is not president of the United States, No. 1. And No. 2 is that we maintain the majorities in both houses of Congress. But transcendent above all is that we need to get the government back to the people of this country, and that means pursuing (a) reform agenda, and under no circumstances can I be dissuaded from that."

McCain is convinced that the voters, particularly young voters, are listening to his message about reform and the value of service and sacrifice.

"I've lost other times in my life, and life hasn't always been fair to me," he says. "But I'm the luckiest guy that you will ever interview. I've had a wonderful life. We had a wonderful race. We started out at 2 and 3 percent and we ended up making it a very competitive race. I mean, this is the greatest experience of my life."

"I was at UCLA, and with a number of hundreds of students there, I started talking about the nobility of service, and how wonderful it is to be part of this incredible experiment," he says. "And it got real quiet. And they paid attention. This is really what's the rewarding thing about this campaign."

McCain's crusade may have failed. But he says he will keep fighting for his reform agenda. He won't run as an independent. But he will use a new political action committee to help reform-minded candidates. And he will fight for reform within the Senate.

"I think I can serve the country far better in the United States Senate," he says. "Vice president of the United States would be a great honor obviously, but I think I have to assess where I can best serve the country. And I think that's in the United States Senate."

Would he ever consider accepting an offer from Bush to be the vice presidential candidate? Says McCain: "Under no circumstances would I entertain such a proposal."