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McCain: A Team Player?

NRSC’s Allen Honors Rebel

Now Sen. John McCain really has seen it all in politics.

The pugnacious Arizona Republican — whose storied tensions with President Bush and fellow Congressional Republicans have probably brought him more enemies than allies within his party leadership — was given an award Tuesday by his colleagues that floored him: Team Player of the Week.

Yes, team player.

“It shows that if you live long enough, anything can happen,” McCain said later, gripping and flipping an official NFL football presented to him by Sen. George Allen (Va.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

It’s just the latest sign in how far McCain, who some Democrats last spring were praying would join Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on a unity ticket, has gone in reclaiming his spot as a man Republican candidates want standing next to them on the trail.

Trying to induce his fellow Republicans to work hard to increase their majority this fall, Allen has given out a football each week the Senate is in session to a Republican who has gone the extra mile in fundraising or some other critical campaign component.

A former quarterback for the University of Virginia whose proclivity for football analogies sometimes evokes groans, Allen calls the footballs “game balls” for those who play “Team Ball.”

After Tuesday’s lunch, McCain joked that it must have been a mistake. “Maybe it’s a misprint,” he said, pointing to his hand-drawn name on the football with stars on either side of the name. Or, he quipped: “Maybe they ran out of Senators.”

Not so, Allen said. “I even wrote his name on it myself.”

In truth, Allen said he’s been more than pleased with the work McCain has done on behalf of Republican candidates and the NRSC.

McCain recently cut a campaign commercial for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), whose fight against former Gov. Tony Knowles (D) has made her the GOP incumbent in the toughest re-election battle. On Friday night McCain will be the headline speaker at a multimillion-dollar NRSC fundraiser in New York.

McCain said by Election Day he expects that he will campaign for at least 10 House and Senate candidates, a number that would be much higher if he weren’t stumping so much with Bush.

He has already appeared in the Golden State for former California Secretary of State Bill Jones, the Republican nominee against Sen. Barbara Boxer (D). In addition several other Senate campaigns are trying to finalize details about a McCain trip to their state, including Pete Coors (R) in Colorado, former Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.).

While McCain has only nominal opposition to his own re-election this fall, he said that he will have to spend time in Arizona because he will never take for granted the votes of his home state, time that will also limit his effectiveness for Bush and GOP candidates.

“The people of Arizona expect to see me,” he said.

Still, Republicans remain very happy that McCain has been such a loyal soldier this campaign season. After his aggressive challenge to Bush in the 2000 presidential primary, McCain maintained widespread popularity and stumped for several dozen House and Senate candidates that fall.

But his fight for changing campaign laws and forbidding unlimited contributions to the national party committees strained his relations with fellow Republicans, as did his sometimes pointed opposition to critical GOP agenda items. McCain was one of the only Senate Republicans to vote against Bush’s initial $1.3 trillion tax-cut package in 2001.

While he did stump for a fair number of candidates in 2002, McCain limited many of those campaign appearances to Republicans who were at least somewhat supportive of his campaign finance reforms. Earlier this year, after refusing to yield on a GOP budget that he thought included too much spending and too many tax cuts, McCain drew a public rebuke from Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) that was unusually personal in nature.

Hastert suggested McCain’s call for sacrifice in the budget at a time of war was misguided, saying, “John McCain ought to visit our young men and women at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] and Bethesda [National Naval Medical Center]. There’s the sacrifice in this country.”

The former prisoner of war in Vietnam, however, has turned the other political cheek of late, first by campaigning with Bush in the spring at a time when he was slipping in the polls because of prisoner abuse scandals in Iraq and then by speaking at the Republican National Convention for Bush in late August.

Now, thanks to Allen, he’s got proof that he’s a team player.

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