IF YOU CAN call a man who spent five and a half years in a prisoner-of-war camp lucky, then John McCain, Vietnam POW turned Arizona senator, is lucky. More than a year after he was identified as one of the infamous 'Keating Five" of the S&L scandal, another war has given him a golden opportunity to salvage his political career.
Ever since the gulf war began in January, McCain, a former Navy pilot, has been as much in deJackGermond &JulesWitcovermand on the news-and-analysis circuit as a retired four-star general. Last weekend he came home with a videotape of a bombing attack to show the workers who helped make the helicopter involved. He even served as the host for a radio call-in show.
This exposure, together with the televising in Arizona of the Senate ethics hearings in which the chief "prosecutor" recommended that conflict-of-interest charges against him be dropped, has produced an impressive boost for McCain in local polls.
The latest, by the Behavior Research Center of Phoenix of 601 adults in Maricopa County (Phoenix), shows McCain's approval rating nearly doubling in a month, from 24 percent in January to 43 percent in early February.
McCain calls the turnaround "mind-boggling," and he candidly attributes about 60 to 70 percent of it to the war, "redefining John McCain in the way in which the people of Arizona liked him and voted for him" -- as a war hero.
In this state with a disproportionate percentage of its sons and daughters in the gulf, military men and defense champions -- like Air Force Reserve Gen. Barry Goldwater -- are usually strong vote-getters.
McCain was no exception, until the S&L scandal cut him -- and Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini -- down to size. The scandal hit here particularly hard because the central figure, financier Charles Keating, who made big campaign contributions to all five senators, is an Arizona operator.
DeConcini, as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has also been on television since the gulf war started, but he is not in McCain's war-celebrity category and he has suffered, where McCain has gained, from the televising of the ethics committee hearings.
Whereas McCain has been widely credited as having backed away from helping Keating with his troubles with federal S&L regulators, DeConcini has borne the brunt of testimony claiming he was a central force in bringing pressure to bear on them for Keating.
The most recent Behavior Research Center polling gave DeConcini a favorable rating of only 18 percent, slightly up from the 15 percent registered for him in January in Arizona's population center. His poor rating remained high, dipping only from 42 percent to 40, while McCain's poor rating dropped from 20 percent to 14 percent.
The ethics committee hearings are believed to have had a strong negative impact on DeConcini because they were televised daily by the C-SPAN cable channel and were watched religiously by the elderly in a state that has a very large retirement community.
In addition, McCain has spent much more time in Arizona attending to damage control than has DeConcini. He has been in the state almost constantly since the December adjournment conducting town meetings and criss-crossing the state. As a matter of course, McCain commutes home virtually every weekend anyway, his wife and children living in the state.
DeConcini, by contrast, remained in Washington during most of the period leading up to the U.S. attacks on Iraq, eventually voting to try economic sanctions longer -- a position that could hurt him here, though McCain, who voted to authorize force, says he doesn't think so.
DeConcini did spend the February recess in Arizona, and one reason he may not have spent more time is that he is not up for re-election until 1994. Hence he has plenty of time for fence mending, whereas McCain must run next year.
McCain says the war has replaced the S&L scandal in questions voters have been asking him, but he adds: "I can't help wondering what the anti-incumbency mood will be a year-and-a-half from now. It could turn into voter apathy." Right now, he seems to have much less to worry about than he did a year ago.
As for DeConcini, speculation continues that he is so bad off he may choose not to seek re-election in 1992. Among those mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate for the seat is former Gov. Bruce Babbitt. He says if he had to decide now, the answer would be no. But he doesn't have to decide now.