ARLINGTON, Va. -- Officially, he is not yet running and won't make up his mind until after the fall elections, but Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona, sounds as if an announcement of his candidacy is merely a formality.
In an interview Thursday in his Senate office, he called his 2000 campaign "the most exhilarating period of my life."
Mr. McCain has publicly disagreed with President Bush on certain issues, but about the president's handling of the war on terror since 9/11, Mr. McCain offered generous praise: "The war on terror is what re-elected President Bush. We were able to frame the debate in that  campaign ... that President Bush was by far the most qualified guy. By the way, I believe that to this day with my heart and soul."
What may attract Republicans who believe Mr. Bush is not a true conservative is Mr. McCain's willingness to oppose the president on more spending and bigger government, along with Mr. McCain's language on the consequences of illegal immigration.
Mr. McCain told me: "The director of the FBI has stated there are more people from countries of interest coming across our border. So there is no doubt the threat has increased. That's why immigration reform - of which border enforcement is a part - must be a prime issue."
Mr. McCain believes the issue of a United Arab Emirates company managing U.S. ports, while important, should not be our highest priority: "If something were to happen at a U.S. port, it isn't the port that will be the problem, but the port where [the cargo] originated, or where it passes through. I believe the war in Iraq is of transcendent importance. Same with Iranian nuclear weapons. So is continued infiltration of al-Qaida back into Afghanistan."
Mr. McCain said that while he has a good handle on foreign policy, he intends to learn more on domestic issues, including economics, tax policy and health care: "I'm going to have to be smarter on some issues than I am now."
He's confident his "25-year record on pro-life" will satisfy social conservatives. About culture: "I've done some terrible things in my life, so I try not to be a judge, but it seems to me there is a poison in our culture that we have to address. Maybe it's through the bully pulpit, but we can't pass a bunch of laws to control it all."
Mr. McCain is generous about two of his potential rivals for the GOP nomination. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, he says, "is a far more decent person than John McCain is." Virginia Sen. George Allen has "a very good record and is a very attractive guy." Mr. McCain says it will be "very tough" to win the Republican nomination, and that "no one should be coronated."
Mr. McCain thinks Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton will be the 2008 Democratic nominee, "and anyone who underestimates her would do so at great risk." Noting that he once faced a female opponent, Mr. McCain says of running against women, "You'd better be respectful. That's the key. If you act disrespectful, it's devastating."
Mr. McCain faults the Federal Election Commission for not outlawing the "527" committees that funneled millions into recent campaigns through a loophole in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. He worries that millions of dollars in contributions to 527s from people such as liberal activist George Soros could buy the election for Democrats in several close 2006 races. Invoking Mr. Soros could also win him approval among certain conservatives who have been suspicious of Mr. McCain in the past.
Mr. McCain is doing his homework and laying the groundwork for an election run. Whether he actually runs depends on shifting political winds over which he has minimal control.
Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.