WASHINGTON -- Republican Sen. John McCain made a low-key return to Washington yesterday and crept ever so slightly toward endorsing Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
However, the Arizona senator made it plain that he's in no hurry to embrace the man who defeated him in the presidential contest.
"I think there's no doubt that I would support the nominee of the Republican Party," he said on CBS-TV last night. "How that happens and under what circumstances, the degree of enthusiasm, obviously are questions that are yet to be resolved."
McCain, just back from a post-campaign vacation in the South Pacific, spent most of the day closeted with political and legislative advisers. A reunion with his GOP colleagues, most of [See whom campaigned against him on behalf of Bush, will come today at a closed party luncheon.
"I hope this year I can get elected Miss Congeniality," McCain told reporters, repeating a joke he often makes about the strained relations that have marked his 14-year tenure in the clubby institution. "I've lost every other year, I'm hoping that this year I'll be more successful. At least runner-up."
So far, that doesn't appear likely.
Plans proposed by Bush supporters in the Senate for a festive welcome-back party were squelched by McCain allies for fear they would appear tastelessly hypocritical.
The great majority of Republican senators, who oppose McCain's efforts on campaign finance reform and have been angered by his drive to curtail pork-barrel spending, are wary of what he might do with his heightened national status.
As McCain delivers two planned floor speeches today, and conducts a follow-up news conference, other senators will be listening closely to his tone, Senate aides said.
They expect him to continue his rebellious ways, said aides, and worry that he could undermine Bush's election prospects against Vice President Al Gore, the likely Democratic nominee.
McCain said throughout the primaries that he would support the eventual nominee, a statement he repeated several times yesterday. But Bush and McCain have yet to make peace after what became a very bitter personal battle.
The Texas governor, who would like the support of independent voters attracted to the McCain campaign, appeared to set back any potential alliance when he made comments last week that seemed dismissive of McCain's reform ideas.
"I look forward to discussions with Gov. Bush as time goes on," McCain said. "I've also reiterated my unconditional commitment to those who voted for me in the name of reform and the reform agenda. I will not abandon my reform agenda and those millions of people who are relying on me to pursue it."
McCain's major goal for the remainder of the election year seems to be the election of Republican candidates to Congress who share his views. Particularly in contests for the House of Representatives, where the loss of six seats would tip control back to the Democrats, his support could be significant.
He has been inundated with requests from candidates who want him to stump for them, his aides said. McCain said he is consulting with Virginia Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, before he decides which invitations to accept.
"I will be very active in supporting House members as well as Senate members who will support the reform agenda," McCain said.
McCain is also planning to convert his presidential campaign in to a political action committee that, he said, will function "like a foundation" to finance his political travels and "keep the message alive."
Unlike campaign committees run by most congressional leaders, however, McCain's does not plan to funnel money directly to other candidates.
No travel schedule has yet been set for McCain. But his first out-of-town appearance is expected to be on behalf of New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who is being challenged by Hillary Rodham Clinton for a Senate seat from New York.
"I'd love to go see Rudy Giuliani" in the Senate, said McCain. "He's one of the more entertaining people that I have known in life. He will be as uncontroversial and low-key as I am."
McCain said Giuliani's decision to accept "soft money," the large, unregulated donations by individuals, corporations and labor unions that McCain has crusaded against, would not prevent him from campaigning for the New York mayor.
"I don't like that and I will express clearly my dislike of that," said McCain, adding that he did not demand any concessions for agreeing to help.