... while maverick who stayed away retains mystique

IOWA had been crawling with Republican presidential hopefuls for weeks before yesterday's "straw poll". But there was one notable absentee.

Senator John McCain had announced weeks earlier that he would not take part, and he stuck to his decision, calling the proceedings "a sham".

Through the past week, as his fellow Republicans braved torrential rain and furious farmers the length and breadth of the state, Mr McCain was relaxing with his wife, Cindy, and their four children at home in Arizona. Today he will offer his thoughts on the Iowa results on two television talk shows, and tomorrow he will set off back on the campaign trail, starting a bus tour of California.

Ever since March, when he delayed announcing his bid for the presidency because, he said, it was inappropriate to do so when the country was effectively at war (against Yugoslavia), Mr McCain has set himself apart. After initially condemning President Clinton for using insufficient force over Kosovo, he became one of the Democratic President's staunchest supporters, scattering his fellow Republican Senators to either side: those who opposed any involvement in the conflict and those who said ground troops were essential to victory.

The Kosovo conflict put Mr McCain's candidacy on the map. He is one of the few presidential contenders from either party who has no lack of military credentials and no qualms about exposing his military record. Now 62 and a Senator since 1986, he campaigns as a "genuine American hero". The son of an admiral, he was a Navy pilot who was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 and held prisoner by the North Vietnamese for five-and-a-half years. It is on record that he was offered his freedom on several occasions, but refused it on the grounds that it would break his solidarity with those who did not have his connections.

In a book to be published in the autumn (to coincide with the start of the nomination race proper), he writes that there were times when he despaired and attempted suicide.

A hawk on foreign policy and defence, but no isolationist, he is not a conventional Republican; some go so far as to call him a radical. He is an outspoken campaigner for reform of the political funding system, which he calls "corrupt", and he has joined leading Democrats in advocating strong curbs on the tobacco industry. He has argued that the party should take a less dogmatic stance on abortion (which it is gradually doing).

Mr McCain would be the first to concede that one reason for his staying away from Iowa was his relatively weak support in that state. A good speaker and impressive television performer (but said to be short-tempered in private), he sees himself as more of a New Hampshire kind of "independent" and does well in opinion polls in that state.

In fact, uncommitted voters in several states say that they are torn between supporting him and the Democratic challenger to Vice-President Al Gore, Bill Bradley.

His fund-raising has gone well; among Republicans he stands third, after the runaway leader, George W Bush, and the billionaire publisher Steve Forbes. With hindsight, Mr McCain's decision not to join the frenzy in Iowa looks even wiser than it did at the time he made it. However misleading a guide to the caucuses and primaries that constitute the real selection procedure, yesterday's paid-for straw poll will be interpreted as an indicator of the candidates' fund-raising capacity and therefore of their prospects. By remaining aloof, Mr McCain has preserved an aura of mystery and shown himself to be one of a kind - which is perhaps his strongest selling point.

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