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All aboard Mr. McCain's wild ride

John McCain has been on a wild ride. Now he's going to drag the Republican Party on one.

The party that takes paternalism so seriously it was willing to anoint the scion just based on his scionosity must now deal with the scamp.

It's an East of Eden moment.

When former President Bush came up to New Hampshire, he called his son a "boy" who would not let the country down.

McCain pounced on the word "boy." "I fully agree with that," he said, grinning.

W. seemed to revert to a jittering teenager standing on stage next to his dad at a country music concert on Saturday. It underscored John McCain's case: Junior was a nice enough guy, but did he have the experience to run the country?

Everyone assumes the Bush machine will try to tear John McCain apart limb by limb. But then, John McCain already survived that fate far away and long ago. So he's pretty fearless.

He went from being a rebellious son to a rebellious POW to a rebellious senator. Eighteen months ago at dinner, he mused about how much of a maverick was too much of a maverick to win the Republican nomination. He knows, even with his rout here, it's hard to capture a party whose leaders hate you.

"I try to restrain my delusions of grandeur," he says.

His weird schizophrenic existence _ cherished by voters and reporters in New Hampshire for his directness, loathed by Republican leaders back in Washington for his directness _ was illustrated in a funny exchange on his bus on Monday.

McCain turned to his friend, the movie actor turned GOP senator, Fred Thompson, who had come from the nation's capital to campaign on the Straight Talk Express.

"How are things in the city of Satan?" McCain asked.

Thompson replied that all was quiet.

Then a reporter asked McCain what sort of reception he would get if his campaign collapsed and he had to return to the Senate he has so often stirred up.

"Flowers will be strewn in my path," he replied dryly.

"Something will be," Thompson observed, even more dryly.

The McCain campaign was devilish. The senator pointed out Tom Brokaw to one town hall audience as "one of the last Trotskyites left-wing, Communist, pinkos of the American media."

He reminisced about an exotic dancer he had once dated when he was a single flier. "Marie, the flame thrower of Florida," he said. Asked what she was like, he replied, "She was pretty volatile," and then slapped his knee and laughed, "Har, har, har!"

The candidate occasionally used curse words, usually foreign to campaigns. He called himself a "wacko" and "an old geezer," and his answers often degenerated into jokes. Sometimes his answers went over a weird edge, as when he teased an Air Force veteran: "I tried to get in the Air Force, but my parents were married." Complaining it was not "manly" of Bush to keep him off the New York ballot, McCain started to denounce it as Communistic. "I spent a portion of my life under that system," he said. Then he stopped and smiled. "How's that for demagoguery? _ Here, you wanna see my medals?"

Unlike Al Gore and Bush, who dole themselves out sparingly, the Arizona senator offered a giddy excess of access to the press contingent he dubbed "great ferrets of truth." There was even a teenage reporter from Seventeen magazine, patiently waiting to ask if McCain preferred Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera.

If elected, the man who loves to yak promised weekly yak conferences. He also wants to start a dialogue with the Senate, a la British Question Time.

He was full of blunt answers. Queried about Bill Clinton's legacy, he shot back: "I think he'll be remembered as a great waste. A great talent and a great waste."

Thompson was asked if he had given McCain any tips about Tennessee in case he ended up running against the vice president from Tennessee.

"Never drink Jack Daniels on an empty stomach," Thompson replied.

+ Maureen Dowd is a New York Times columnist. +

New York Times News Service