After Move Right, Is Maverick McCain Back?

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Jim Young / Reuters

Senator John McCain applauds as Senator John Kerry, left, looks on during President Obama's State of the Union address on Jan. 25, 2011

President Barack Obama and Senator John McCain have seen and spoken more to each other in the past two weeks than in the past four years. The two connected at the memorial in Tucson, Ariz., about the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, but also about common legislative ground moving forward. McCain sat in one of the front rows at the State of the Union, and he even made a rare White House appearance the day before at an event for military families. And Obama and McCain will have had two follow-up conversations on legislation, including one on Wednesday at the White House.

Friends and colleagues say they have noticed a marked change in the 74-year-old Arizona Senator. His steady march to the right, which began during his presidential campaign and ended with his re-election to a fifth Senate term last year, has halted. "He's much happier this year," says Senator Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat who is working with McCain on a host of subjects: redistricting, campaign finance reform, national parks, water issues and even immigration, a subject McCain assiduously avoided during his tough re-election campaign. "He's much more willing to sit down and talk about ideas to move the country forward."

The outreach began last month, when McCain penned an op-ed in the Washington Post after the Tucson memorial, which Obama liked enough to call and compliment McCain for. In that conversation, Obama invited McCain over to the White House to chat, a session set for Wednesday. Elsewhere, McCain has been in touch with new White House chief of staff William Daley about other issues, including U.S.-Colombia relations.

McCain isn't the only one looking across the aisle. "With the President moving to the center, memories of 2008 have faded," says Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat who is working with McCain on line-item veto legislation. "Now there's an occasion for the two of them to get together on a bunch of issues and actually get something done. I don't know that they'll ever be close friends, but the President's agenda and John's agenda are closely aligned — so why not get together and have some fun? It could benefit the country enormously."

Indeed, according to McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan, McCain's enmity toward Obama was more about the President's insistence on passing massive bills on the backs of his Democratic majorities, hardly bothering to reach out to Republicans. "What some viewed as personal was simply fundamental philosophical differences on the issues," Buchanan says. "If you look at the issues this session, there is now common ground." Some of the items Obama named in the State of the Union were issues McCain has been working on for years, such as earmark reform, free trade, reducing spending, reforming the tax code and medical malpractice reform.

So, is the redoubtable maverick back? One longtime McCain watcher thinks so. "It appears Mac is back on track to be a player of significance and importance on the center stage of American politics," notes his old friend and adviser Mark McKinnon. "The lion in winter is starting to roar."