PHILADELPHIA -- Now that John McCain has paid his dues to the Republican establishment and to George W. Bush with a convention speech lauding the man who beat him, the self-described "distant runner-up" will spend the rest of the summer further buffing up his party credentials by campaigning for fellow Republicans who want to tap into his appeal to independents.
The effort will include, according to Todd Harris, his press secretary, some joint appearances with Mr. Bush in October. Mr. Bush told the Republican National Committee's big fund-raising lunch Wednesday that "I can't wait to campaign with John McCain all across America together." Arizona's senior senator will focus on races vital to the party's chances of holding control of the House, where the Democrats need a gain of only six seats to take over.
But his speech here did not sound like a swan song to presidential ambitions. While he wistfully observed that "the immortality that was the aspiration of my youth has, like all the treasures of youth, quietly slipped away," he spoke of objectives not yet achieved, always in the context of fealty to Mr. Bush's candidacy.
He made no specific reference to his crusade for campaign finance reform, on which he and Mr. Bush disagree. Instead, he limited himself to the observation that unless Americans "reform our public institutions ... America's best days will be behind us."
But at the "shadow convention" held elsewhere in the city earlier, he spoke specifically about "a campaign finance system that is nothing more than an elaborate influence-peddling scheme." He clearly still has fire in his belly over the issue.
At his age -- he will be 64 on Aug. 29 -- another presidential bid in 2004 would be a longshot even if Mr. Bush were to be defeated. But only McCain loyalists here are willing to think the unthinkable. For example, Eddie Mahe, a veteran conservative GOP consultant, asked about Mr. McCain's future, snapped: "He goes back to the Senate."
But McCain insiders muse otherwise, noting that their man's "Straight Talk America" political action committee collected $1 million in the first quarter since he bowed out. And they point out that he will be only 67 at the start of the next presidential campaign, compared to Ronald Reagan, who was 68 when he was elected in 1980.
Mr. McCain, however, would have problems bigger than age. The relatively restrained response to his speech here showed he's much more popular outside the convention hall -- among independents and some Democrats -- than inside it, where old-line conservatives still hold sway. While Mr. McCain is conservative on most issues, the party establishment remains nervous about his maverick side.
Some argue that if Mr. Bush were to lose in November, the Republican Party would be so shaken that it might take a second look at Mr. McCain. While not conceding the possibility of a Bush loss, former party national chairman Bill Brock said Mr. McCain had reaffirmed "his establishment credentials" with his convention speech and "absolutely" would be in the running in 2004. But, he added, "he won't be the only one. We have a huge stable of governors."
Meanwhile, Mr. McCain will continue to play the good party soldier. Indeed, his speech comment that he was "grateful" to Mr. Bush went beyond what was expected of him by the Bush camp. Why should he be grateful to the man who dashed his presidential dreams with such slashing attacks as saying he opposed breast cancer research? An aide says his boss was grateful for the prime time he got to deliver his speech. If anyone should be grateful, it's Mr. Bush, under the circumstances.
Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's chief strategist, says the gratitude is mutual, based on conversations the party nominee and his former rival have had in recent days. But one supportive speech from Mr. McCain, a man of fierce independence, doesn't mean he will stay on the Bush reservation from now until Election Day.
He is sticking to his opposition to Mr. Bush's big tax cut proposal and has served emphatic notice that he will continue his "crusade" for campaign finance reform, including a ban on all unregulated "soft" money. What's more likely is a truce between Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain, rather than a surrender.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover generally write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).