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In a city of cynical, cover-your-butt egotists, it's not easy to find heroes. You could count them on one hand. Or one finger. In my own pantheon, there's a lone qualifier: Arizona's Republican Sen. John McCain.

If I had the vote to determine Republicans' 2000 presidential nominee -- an unlikely fantasy -- I'd skip past usual suspects Dan Quayle, George Bush III or Steve Forbes.

I'd tap this rumpled, stocky, white-haired maverick, John McCain. And wait for cheers and jeers.

You always start with the legitimate heroism of McCain, who spent a harrowing 5 1/2 years, two in solitary, as a POW after his A-4E Skyhawk was shot out of the North Vietnam sky.

Anyone doubting McCain's credentials could check Robert Timberg's book, "The Nightingale's Song." He describes McCain's crash, knee and both arms broken, beaten and bayonetted by captors. Skeletal and near death in prison, McCain was offered freedom because his father was a famous U.S. admiral.

"McCain spat in their faces and cursed them," wrote Timberg, describing astonished keepers fleeing his cell.

McCain knew he'd lost the campaign-reform fight. He was far short of 15 Republicans for an up-and-down vote. Leader Trent Lott jockeyed to kill the bill. McCain never gave up.

Maybe when he'd been beaten, starved and humiliated by military thugs, defeat by cynical senators wasn't apocolyptic.

You wonder if the enemies McCain made in the campaign money fight will doom his 2000 presidential hopes. No gadfly can thwart senatorial peers, party bosses and corporate donors without reaping vengeance.

"I'd say it diminishes my chances," McCain told the Arizona Republic. "I heard every Republican leader, especially party chairmen, in emotional opposition."

Make no mistake, McCain ponders his 2000 ambitions. "Every night," he jokes. "But it's impractical. Lots of downsides."

He knows something about long-shots. McCain led Sen. Phil Gramm's star-crossed run in the '96 primaries. He switched to Bob Dole. Never mind Dole's blunder in picking Jack Kemp over McCain as running mate. McCain stuck loyally as Dole's surrogate, cheerleader and confidante.

Those "downsides" aren't trifling. When Timberg recalls McCain's personality at the U.S. Naval Academy -- "rowdy, idiosyncratic, intuitive," the admiral's son who finish 894th in a class of 899 -- he could be describing McCain in the Senate. Still confrontational, his own man.

You don't win a Mr. Congeniality award by haranguing against lobbyists' gifts, free airport spaces, Pentagon pork and senators' pet projects. In the middle of the campaign money fight, McCain tried to knock out Trent Lott's sneaky $4 million for a Mississippi lake.

When 2000 winnowing gets intense, McCain's non-angelic past may also haunt him. He was one of the "Keating Five," who took funds from the now jailed S&L king. He admits the episode "will be on my political tombstone." Do-gooders will also note he was a philandering husband who divorced first wife Carol, crippled while he was in Vietnam. "Good people do bad things," said McCain.

So McCain has been tempered by life's fires. At 61, the rough edges are burned off. In political brawls, you can see him smile, soften his words, tamp down anger. He's an interesting man who makes other presidential wannabes look like made-for-TV cardboard cutouts.

Like genuine heroes, he carries his war scars lightly.

"Doesn't take much talent to get shot down," he told a New Hampshire crowd. Then somberly: "Maybe we should take our oaths seriously. Give up our perks, our war chests. I saw other men pay a higher price."

It would double the shame of campaign reform's crash if McCain is a victim of friendly fire. Can Republicans stifle their embarrassment and pick John McCain in 2000? Or does real heroism make them nervous?

Philadelphia Daily News

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