All The King's Horses...

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CHRISTOPHER MORRIS--BLACK STAR FOR TIME

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Though McCain's folks think he holds a strong hand, many of their threats may ultimately be empty. McCain is, as he always says, a committed Republican, and he's not likely to sit on his hands while Gore sweeps past Bush into the White House. And while suspending rather than folding his campaign allows McCain to keep control of his delegates, staging a floor fight at the party convention this summer in the vain hope of inserting a pro-reform plank into the G.O.P. platform would only supply ammunition to those Republicans who deride him as the party's Ross Perot. Most important, say some who are close to him, McCain may want to run for President again in 2004--despite what he has said--and doesn't want to completely lop himself off from his party. At worst, say some insiders, McCain might withhold his endorsement until just before the convention, depriving Bush of the unity he seeks now, but giving no long-term aid to the Democrats either.

What calm heads in both camps believe is that the passage of time will clear the way for some kind of arrangement. While McCain relaxes with his family on the South Pacific island of Bora Bora this week, the number of G.O.P. savants who come forward to try to save the day will only multiply. Hagel, a Vietnam vet and one of McCain's few Capitol Hill supporters, could play a key role in any rapprochement. His participation in the early talks has already caused his name to creep up the unofficial list of possible Bush running mates. And Hagel happens to be the author of a more widely supported campaign-finance-reform bill. It could, says another McCain adviser, be a "starting point for a compromise."

The decision McCain faces will mirror a tension that ran throughout his campaign between the close-knit group of advisers who traveled with him and the handful of Washington powerbrokers and lawmakers who supported his campaign. The traveling advisers who are his closest confidants are true believers in the McCain crusade and grumble that D.C. insiders like former Congressman Vin Weber, former Reagan chief of staff Ken Duberstein and even Hagel are negotiating out of school. The palace guard believes these outside advisers are boxing McCain into a deal that values party unity over McCain's cause. Duberstein spoke several times last week with Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser. But before leaving the country, McCain advised the self-appointed intermediaries not to make any deals in his absence, and put his loyal political director, John Weaver, in charge of the talks.

Those who know McCain best point once again to his biography for clues to how he will proceed. A man who worked to restore U.S. relations with the North Vietnamese after they held him captive for 5 1/2 years has an extraordinary capacity for forgiveness. Even when he thought Bush had played dirty to win a closely contested primary state, McCain placed the congratulatory phone call, something the Governor did not do after Michigan. So it may be that after the heat of the battle dissipates, McCain will remember a lesson from Luke Skywalker, the Star Wars hero with whom he identified during the campaign: in the end, Skywalker and Darth Vader reconciled.

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