The string of victories is putting to rest the GOP maverick's image as a big talker who can't deliver--and it's forcing Bush to take notice. "Events have authenticated the agenda," McCain says. "I can't divine what's motivating the President, but I'm pleased."
What makes McCain so maddening is that he comes at Bush from both the left and the right. He champions consumer rights, new business regs, and environmental protection. But he's a foreign-policy hawk, insisting that Bush's brand of antiseptic warfare will not upend foes such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
McCain has allied with Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) in pressuring Bush to urge NATO to add the Baltic states, something the President has yet to embrace.
Bush advisers gripe that the Arizonan is still settling grudges from 2000. They blast McCain as a Republican in name only, citing his calls for expanded government.
At 65, after a recurrence of melanoma, McCain might have his legacy in mind. Some think McCain could still mount a Presidential bid. But McCain says he's just trying to get things done. "All of our time is limited," he says. "When you have the opportunity, seize it."
Whatever his motivation, McCain is nudging Bush toward the center. In the wake of the Enron Corp. scandal, Bush likely will accept legislation to overhaul campaign finance. If he does, it won't be the first time he has bowed to pressure from McCain. In the aftermath of September 11, Bush reluctantly signed an airline security bill co-sponsored by McCain. The White House wanted private companies to handle airport security rather than federal workers.
Elsewhere, the President has embraced McCain's agenda. His State of the Union speech borrowed heavily from a national service initiative authored by McCain and Senator Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). And on Feb. 13, after much agitation by McCain allies, the Administration moved to make it harder for illegal immigrants to buy guns.
McCain is just getting started. With Lieberman, he'll try to require background checks on buyers at gun shows, which Bush opposes. And McCain and Senator John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) want auto makers to double their fleets' gas mileage.
Building on momentum from the campaign finance battle, McCain's new priority will be working with Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to move a stalled patients' rights measure. Bush will be forced to bend, Bayh says: "The White House has probably made the cold-blooded political calculation that fighting the patients' bill of rights doesn't make sense." Next, McCain and Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) will try to close a tax loophole that allows business to write off employee stock options without claiming them as an expense against earnings.
McCain's critics call him a showboat on a lucky streak. "It isn't McCain that drove [campaign reform]. It's Enron," says William C. Miller, political director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Maybe so. But McCain will take victories any way he can. That means more heartburn for the Reformer-in-Chief. By Lorraine Woellert in Washington