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A look at John McCain

WASHINGTON - By virtue of long service to Arizona tribes as a senator, and to Indian country at large as chairman twice over of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain may have the best chance any GOP presidential candidate has ever had to break the Democratic lock on American Indian votes.

With the Republican Party dispirited from a sequence of recent special election losses, and Democrats everywhere increasingly confident about their chances in November, the likelihood is he'll need them. Accordingly, his campaign says he'll run a national campaign for Native votes, avoiding a narrow focus on strategic Indian-populous states to go the length and breadth of Indian country.

''He'll run a national campaign, and hopes to meet and work with the tribes in each state.''

As president, he promises to achieve results for Indian country the same way he has done it for 26 years in Congress - ''through close consultation with tribes. ... John McCain has always believed that the key to positive change in Indian country is close consultation with the tribes to identify the issues and define the solutions for their future.''

But just as he seemed to be finding the well-known maverick gear every pundit says he'll need in the national election, offering market-disciplined programs against global warming and a veritable dressing-down of the politically toxic president for his long stalling game on the same, a pair of issues arose as reminders that any Republican presidential candidate is going to have baggage in Indian country.

First: the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. McCain has always been against oil drilling and exploration in ANWR. Even his fellow Republican, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, a stalwart proponent of tapping the refuge, gives McCain credit for that. As Crystal Benton in his campaign communications office explained, McCain rejects more than the environmental impact of ANWR drilling. He rejects the very economic sense of extracting ANWR oil - it costs more to get at than it can return in oil to the national energy supply, given that the return isn't sustainable.

That's where the baggage comes in. Republican colleagues, ''encouraged'' so to speak by the big oil and energy lobby, have exhausted themselves in a perennial campaign for ANWR oil. But still they were not too spent to bang their oil drums loudly as the per-barrel price surpassed all previously conceivable limits ($200 per barrel by year's end is becoming a serious fear). At the same time the economic crisis engineered in the global capital markets and local mortgage lending shops begins to roll with a slow vengeance through the real economy, as it must, Americans may be forced to pay four, five, six dollars for a gallon of gas.

Everyone will hear the GOP drums thumping for ANWR oil then, but who will listen? The concern in some quarters is that a Republican in the White House just might.

Benton breaks stride slightly, reluctant to say never across the span of 100 years. But when the time frame is the potential eight-year term of a President McCain, she has no hesitation. "Hard to imagine a circumstance in which he would support drilling in ANWR in the near future."

The next bit of baggage to emerge recently is more nebulous. During the racketeering years on Capitol Hill of former congressman Tom Delay (speaker of the House at his peak) and criminal lobbying impresario Jack Abramoff, certain Republicans (several of them are no longer in office, and Rep. Rick Renzi of Arizona is under indictment) made a fine art of sailing close to the borderlines of the law on legislative land exchanges - ''swaps'' as they're often called, usually involving a trade of lucrative or otherwise valuable federal real estate for out-of-the-way, privately owned acreage. Land exchanges facilitate many constructive purposes, including sometimes economic development feasibility for tribes. A recent Washington Post report on a land transfer known as the Yavapai Ranch deal, introduced as a bill by McCain, stated that McCain lobbyists and donors had gained from the exchange.

But in contrast with other legislators, McCain and his family did not directly benefit. The public interest did, to judge from widespread public support for the exchange, support that included endorsements from leaders of the Yavapai Apache Tribe and the Navajo Nation in Arizona, among a host of others. Key to the public support was a water partnership forged in the legislation for Arizona's parched north. McCain's camp denies any undue lobbyist influence and insists the candidate never discussed the exchange with the new (and newly enriched) developer of Yavapai Ranch.

''John McCain certainly recognizes that there have been well-documented abuses of legislative land exchanges, but every land exchange bill written by McCain has been written with the highest regard for the public interest.

''There is no comparison between the Yavapai Ranch land exchange and the under-the-table, back-door dealings engaged in by Mr. Abramoff. The Abramoff investigation did not reveal any corruption among tribal governments. It reflected the uncommon greed and avarice of Mr. Abramoff and his associates. The Yavapai Ranch land transfer was a straightforward matter, conducted through the public processes in the Congress and based on a value-for-value exchange.''

Beyond the Republican baggage, McCain's strong points can't miss with many Indians whether they vote for him or not. A veteran himself, the most genuine of war heroes, he has led efforts in Congress to establish a Native American Veterans' Memorial and co-sponsored a resolution honoring the Navajo code talkers of World War II.

If Indian country honors anyone as much as their veterans, it would be their elders. The elderly vote arguably salvaged McCain's campaign, when the coastal semi-retirement communities of South Carolina set him up to break away from the pack in the Florida primary. Native elders, some of them with long memories of McCain's public life and heroic endurance as a prisoner of war, have got to hold some November potential for McCain.

Most of them who vote, vote Democrat, of course. But all signs are that McCain will be facing a Democratic presidential candidate who lost the primary in the Democratic stronghold state of West Virginia by 41 percentage points - an unthinkable margin anywhere in modern politics, but in West Virginia an all the more shocking sign of vulnerability for a front-running Democrat.

If Barack Obama turns out to be the Democrats' man and McCain can stave him off, he'll have no hope of presiding over Republican majorities in Congress, not as matters stand now. If Obama looked eminently beatable in West Virginia, Republican congressional candidates nationwide are the sheeted dead.

While not subscribing to that view, McCain's people indicate that he has partnered with Indian country in bipartisanship.

''He has consistently worked with both Democrats and Republicans who share his view that the federal government has a special relationship to uphold the treaties and agreements entered into with the tribes that transcends partisanship. As president, he will continue to work with tribes and across the aisle,'' according to an e-mail response from Benton.