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Jewish World Review June 12, 2001 / 22 Sivan, 5761

Chris Matthews

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Despite re-ordering, DC is still a circus -- DESPITE the Democrats' takeover of the Senate, this city is a one-ring circus these days. From the press seats high in the Big Top, we watch as a lone lion raises his paw in angry defiance at a lone tamer.

The lion is Sen. John McCain. The figure fending him off with a chair is President Bush.

The match of man and feline carries daunting stakes.

Will the ex-POW from Arizona succeed in his intimidation, forcing Bush to sign campaign finance reform, a patient's bill of rights, a closing of the gun show loophole?

Or will the president, elected by a narrow margin, prove himself master of the ring, whipping McCain back into his cage?

As a D.C. political spectacle, this test of wits between bitter campaign rivals is easily more exciting and arguably more vital than the emerging contest between Bush and the new Senate Majority Leader, South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle.

Why? Because a Bush veto of a bill carrying McCain's seal of approval would be far more costly than a veto of one sporting only Daschle's partisan label.

This goes for HMO reform and gun control, but especially campaign finance reform. It explains why McCain thinks Bush will do everything he can to avoid the lose-lose predicament of having either to sign or veto a bill that has teeth in it.

"He sent a clear message to the other Republicans," McCain told me in an interview last week. "You're going to have to take care of it before it comes to my desk."

Bush wants Republicans in the House leadership to kill the bill. Failing that, he wants them to wound it so badly that what survives the House-Senate conference carries the name of "reform" but leaves political sewers flush with money flowing from big corporations to the politicians' TV ad buyers.

John McCain is the only force in America zealous enough to prevent that. At this point in his career, campaign reform looms as a life's work. There is no abandoning the fight, no substitute for victory. If Bush wins this battle, McCain loses the war. The man who bombed him to merciless defeat in last year's South Carolina primary will have killed him twice.

McCain cannot let that happen. He may have accepted Bush's invite to dinner last Tuesday. He may have said all kinds of nice things in public afterward, how the president is "growing in office," that he's "a smart man."

I don't believe this palsy-walsy business for a second. They are lion and tamer.

Only one can command the ring.

Harry Truman once said that a leader is a person who gets other people to do what they don't want to do "and like it."

If McCain gets Bush to sign a campaign finance reform bill with a smile on his face, or Bush gets McCain to accept defeat with a smile on his, we will know the winner -- and the loser.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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