In the health-care battle, the Arizona Republican has suddenly emerged as the John McCain of old -- a vigorous political combatant. He has publicly hammered Democratic proposals, engaged in heated exchanges on the Senate floor and lent his voice to automated telephone calls pressuring Democratic senators in Arkansas, Colorado and Nebraska on their looming health-care votes.
One of the best-known members of Congress, McCain is giving the party something it had been lacking in the Obama era: a high-profile congressional spokesman on an issue -- health care -- that has consumed Washington. His presence also offers a new potential center of gravity for a party still trying to find its way after bruising electoral defeats in 2006 and 2008.
"He's our best-known Republican senator," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who tapped McCain for the role of party spokesman on health care. "He has a national following. He got a substantial number of votes in a very bad year" for Republicans, McConnell said, referring to the nearly 60 million popular votes McCain got as the losing 2008 candidate.
Democrats say McCain is part of a broad Republican effort to kill the health-care bill -- President Obama's top agenda item -- and deal a devastating political blow to the administration. McCain disagrees, contending that the legislation in its current form is simply bad policy, but he appears to be relishing the political combat.
"I've enjoyed it," he said in an interview. "I think the debate and discussion are important."