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Still, the Senator is looking more and more as though he could be the mainstream G.O.P. man. He won points in 2004 for the energy with which he campaigned for Bush and for his unwavering support of the Iraq war. His reformer credentials could help inoculate Republicans from the growing ethics scandals in Washington; his efforts to curb Congress's practice of slipping lobbyist-sponsored earmarks into spending bills have put him on the same page as those in the party who are most alarmed over how the deficit has exploded under Bush and the Republican Congress. McCain's public spat with Democratic rising star Senator Barack Obama has not hurt him with his fellow Republicans either. "If you pick a fight with a Hillary Clinton or an Obama, the base watches and approves," says activist Grover Norquist, who is no McCain fan. "So it sends all the right vibes."
McCain also caught a break last week when James Webb, Navy Secretary under Ronald Reagan, announced he would run as a Democrat against Republican Senator George Allen of Virginia. Allen had hoped to have only token opposition in his re-election bid this year, making it possible for him to also build the machinery for a 2008 presidential run. But with the charismatic Webb as a possible opponent, Allen will have to stick close to home.
McCain's strategists say that while the party establishment is softening toward McCain, the candidate has not changed. Says one: "The Republican mainstream is shifting, and all of a sudden, John is in it." Surely no one could be more surprised than McCain by how things turn in politics: the scourge of the Establishment is finally finding love in the G.O.P.--and it's coming from the people who write the biggest checks.