So this is what it looks like when the maverick becomes The Man.
Senator John McCain was sitting in the front of his fancy-pants front-runner’s plane, trying to get comfortable. He fidgeted, occasionally lapsing into un-McCainlike blandness: “There is a process in place that will formalize the methodology,” he said in describing how his free-form campaign style will assume the discipline expected of a probable Republican standard-bearer.
The position is unnatural to Mr. McCain, who has typically floundered when not playing the insurgent role. But now he is in the midst of an at-times awkward transition — from being one of the most disruptive figures in his party to someone playing it safer, not to mention trying to make nice with Republicans he clearly despises and who feel similarly about him.
“I’m trying to unify the party,” he says a lot these days, as if reminding himself. He is trying to remain “Johnny B. Goode” (the song blares over a loudspeaker at some McCain rallies), giving relatively cautious answers and trying to rein in his pugnacity, if not his wisecracks.
On a flight from Burlington, Vt., to Warwick, R.I., on Thursday, Mr. McCain volunteered that Brooke Buchanan, his spokeswoman who was seated nearby and rolling her eyes, “has a lot of her money hidden in the Cayman Islands” and that she earned it by “dealing drugs.” Previously, Mr. McCain has identified Ms. Buchanan as “Pat Buchanan’s illegitimate daughter,” “bipolar,” “a drunk,” “someone with a lot of boyfriends” and “just out of Betty Ford.”
It is only a matter of time before some viewer, listener or reader complains — recovering addicts, for example, mental illness sufferers, or, for that matter, Pat Buchanan himself.
One of the trademarks of Mr. McCain’s rebel image has been his inability to cloak his emotions, especially anger. He has been prone to volcanic blowups over the years. And while he would hardly be the first president with a temper, Mr. McCain has been ever vigilant of late about resisting provocation.
He mentioned his recent appearance in Washington before the Conservative Political Action Conference. (No adoring audience, the conventiongoers favored Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, in a straw poll, even though Mr. Romney had quit the race.)
“They booed me when I brought up immigration,” Mr. McCain said. “And, automatically, I just smiled.”
He repeated himself — “Smile! Smile!” — as if recreating an internal exercise that ensured this triumph of self-possession.
Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who backed Mr. Romney in this year’s race, said Mr. McCain, of Arizona, deserved credit for having gone through the entire campaign “under stressful conditions” without any memorable outbursts.
“Does he have a capacity to control it?” asked Mr. Santorum, referring to Mr. McCain’s detonations. “Over the course of the campaign, I think he has managed to. But I think it is a legitimate cause for concern.”
The more famous McCain outbursts have been widely recalled in recent months, in part courtesy of the Romney campaign, which circulated a “Top 10 List” of Mr. McCain’s explosions.
The perception that he struggles to control his anger makes Mr. McCain angry. “I know I sound a little bit defensive,” he said. “But for the last 10 years, I’ve had very little significant disagreement with my colleagues, certainly not personal ones.”
That’s not exactly true: fellow senators and staff members cite more recent dust-ups involving profanities, red-faced exchanges and quick-trigger reactions. Still, only one entry on Mr. McCain’s Greatest Fits list occurred in the last year. He complains that people keep invoking “a problem I had with Chuck Grassley,” referring to the debate in which he shouted unprintable profanities at his Republican colleague from Iowa. “It was 12, 14 years ago,” Mr. McCain said. (It was, in fact, 16.)
Part of being “presidential” and “uniting the party” involves grinning and bearing a wide variety of grievances — in Mr. McCain’s case, from anti-immigration activists, right-wing talk show hosts and the many lawmakers and lobbyists Mr. McCain has crossed, undermined, annoyed and overshadowed over the years.
In addition to winning over his adversaries, Mr. McCain, 71, confronts many obstacles these days, all formidable. He faces well-financed and determined — if not unified — Democrats, questions about his age, and mounting fears about the economy (not his strong suit, he admits).
But Mr. McCain’s chief encumbrance might be himself, namely, his historic inability to play the role of go-along-get-along leader. His flirtation with being the front-runner early last year resulted in near disaster. He has charmed the news media with his quippy and accessible style, and made his political name as a party renegade.
Being on top with a growing staff, greater scrutiny and all the “best behavior” that demands does not necessary play to his strengths. “If he tries to be someone else, that’s a prescription for disaster,” said Bob Stevenson, a Republican strategist who was an aide to Bill Frist, the former Senate majority leader.
“But once you become the nominee of the party,” Mr. Stevenson said, “you begin a transition into a different role, and that transition might be steeper for John McCain than some previous nominees.”
It is with some satisfaction — and irony — that Mr. McCain cataloged the list of longtime Republican adversaries who have lined up in the last week to support him. “John Cornyn endorsed me,” Mr. McCain boasted in the interview, referring to the Republican senator from Texas at whom he directed a well-publicized string of profanities in a meeting last year.
So did Ted Stevens, Mr. McCain said, referring to the longtime senator from Alaska whose enmity for Mr. McCain — and vice versa — is well known. “It was pretty short,” Mr. McCain said of the Stevens endorsement.
'Cold chill down my spine'
“Thad Cochran endorsed me, too,” Mr. McCain marveled, referring to a very brief statement from the Republican senator from Mississippi who recently told The Boston Globe that the thought of Mr. McCain as president “sends a cold chill down my spine.”
Mr. Cochran, who declined to comment for this article, went on to call his longtime colleague “erratic,” “hotheaded” and someone who “loses his temper” and “worries me.”
Mr. McCain said he encountered Mr. Cochran on the Senate floor on Wednesday and the two exchanged a pro forma hug. There was no mention of Mr. Cochran’s criticisms. “What’s the point?” Mr. McCain said. The point — or one point — is that an earlier version of Mr. McCain might have approached Mr. Cochran with less gracious intent.
In the course of a day on the stump, he demonstrated repeatedly that the Old McCain was being retooled on the fly. As his bus wound through Boston on Thursday, Mr. McCain began to tell the gathered-around reporters a sweet story about Senator Edward M. Kennedy. It is an anecdote he has told publicly many times — about how Mr. Kennedy arranged an elaborate birthday celebration for Mr. McCain’s son Jimmy when he turned 11.
But Mr. McCain knows that public appreciation for Ted Kennedy is not the best way to win over the Republican base, so he prefaced the story with a request that it not be attributed to him. (Although he has told the story on the record many times.)
Mr. McCain was stretched out on a velour-covered seat, holding court. He was on his way to put a happy face on a pained encounter — an endorsement by Mr. Romney, a man whom Mr. McCain’s campaign had not long ago derided as a phony, flailing flip-flopper.
Reporters tried to incite Mr. McCain into a wisecrack. One asked if Mr. Romney had “flip-flopped” on his view of Mr. McCain. Mr. McCain grinned tightly, and spoke of how grateful he was for Mr. Romney’s support.
Upon arriving at Mr. Romney’s soon-to-close headquarters, Mr. McCain stood dutifully for a photo op. The onetime adversaries gripped and grinned behind a lectern, standing about as far away as two people shaking hands possibly can.
Mr. McCain stood to the side while his taller, tanner and better-rested former rival called him “a true American hero.”
In turn, the front-runner praised Mr. Romney for running a “hard, intensive, fine, honorable” campaign. “I respect him enormously,” Mr. McCain said, looking solemn, before catching himself and flashing an autopilot smile.