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John McCain on '60 Minutes': Reintroducing himself, in a new role

March 9, 2008 |  4:16 pm

Just a few months ago, John McCain's White House hopes were barely on life support. The Republicans getting all the attention -- and the money -- included Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson; no one, it seemed, wanted to hear from the Arizona senator, whose campaign was almost broke (he fired many of his staff and flew on commercial flights by himself, in coach, to campaign appearances) and whose bipartisan work on legislation (including campaign finance reform and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants) made him a pariah among the party's conservative base.

But in one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent political history, McCain clinched the GOP presidential nomination last week. Now he's beginning another sort of campaign -- introducing himself to the American people not as the self-styled maverick on the Straight Talk Express, but as the presumptive leader of his party, hoping to knit its various skeins -- social conservatives, moderate pragmatists, immigration hard-liners, and so on -- into a tapestry that pictures him taking the oath of office on the Capitol steps in January.

To that end, he appeared Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes" ...

where he held forth on a variety of topics:

He noted that his views on a number of issues had put him at odds "from time to time" with the GOP mainstream. But in his new role as the party's leader,  he said, "we have to, I think, re-energize the party, we have to expand the base, we have to appeal to the independents and we got to go out and get those Reagan Democrats -- and there’s a whole new generation of them. We got our work cut out for us."

Asked about "experience" -- which Hillary Clinton has touted in her campaign against Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination -- the four-term senator, whose strong suits are foreign policy and military matters, played off a Clinton ad asking voters which candidate they would want awakened in the middle of the night to answer a crisis phone call: "If the phone rings at 3:00 a.m., I think the American people would want me to answer it first."

At 71, McCain is the oldest of the candidates, and he was treated in 2000 for malignant melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. But the voters have no cause for concern, he said, describing his health as "excellent" and adding that his medical records will be released "in the next month or so."

(UPDATE: Actually Ralph Nader is the oldest candidate at 74, while Ron Paul is the oldest major party candidate at 72.)

Finally, he was asked about his temper  -- and, just as a consummate politician should, he spun a potential liability to his advantage.

"I think I get angry when I see things go wrong," he said. "I've never been elected Ms. Congeniality. But I do believe that I can unite this party. And I think the American people support somebody who still has the capacity, maybe, to get angry from time to time when we see something wrong."

On an economic question -- specifically the rising price of gasoline -- McCain acknowledged that he has no immediate answer: "The only way we are going to fix it is to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil. We've got to have a crash program, an all-out effort. But I can't give you straight talk and tell you that [snapping his fingers] tomorrow I can change the -- the price of a gallon of gas."

-- Leslie Hoffecker