TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — John McCain was the toast of the Republican convention four years ago, the GOP’s comeback kid crowned as the party’s presidential nominee.
He’ll attend the 2012 party celebration Wednesday but won’t stay for long.
"It’s not my show," the five-term Arizona senator said in an interview Tuesday. "I’m just grateful they asked me to speak."
McCain is a survivor — of a deadly fire on the USS Forrestal in 1967, a missile that knocked his jet out of the sky over Vietnam, a cramped cell of a prisoner of war, cancer and the biggest political loss, the presidency in 2008. He moved on immediately after losing the election to Democrat Barack Obama, focusing on another Senate race and his work in Congress.
He’s grabbed the GOP lead on foreign policy, clamoring for an outsized U.S. role in conflicts in Libya and Syria. He has insisted the defense budget be spared from further spending cuts. He was Obama’s foe on health care and more recently, the defender of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s top aide against unsubstantiated GOP charges of ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
McCain, who turns 76 on Wednesday, understands his role in Tampa. He will speak the night of his birthday about national security and then leave the stage, literally and figuratively, to the next nominee, Mitt Romney, and the GOP’s next generation.
"I consider myself a very fortunate person," said McCain, who has relished his "dive right back in" his role in Congress.
A venerable list of Republicans and Democrats denied the presidency have returned to the Senate for the next chapter, compiling a long list of accomplishments. Among them were Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey, John Kerry and Ted Kennedy, the latter a close colleague of McCain.
The Republican has looked at how the late Democratic senator from Massachusetts handled life after a presidential bid.
"The one thing I learned from Ted Kennedy is fight like hell on the floor, but never let it spill over to personal experience," McCain said.
It’s the type of bipartisan talk that made some conservative Republicans uneasy and unwilling to fully embrace McCain’s candidacy in 2008.
In the years since the last election, McCain turned back a primary challenge in Arizona and won another term, and pressured the administration to aid the rebels fighting Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. He has been outspoken in demanding greater U.S. involvement to stem the bloodshed in Syria.
After Gadhafi’s fall, McCain traveled to Tripoli to praise the revolutionary leaders as an inspiration. Along with Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., he has racked up thousands of frequent flier miles to places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Where the action is," jokes McCain, who rarely slows down. He adds: "I get bored when we’re on recess."
He has been the political stick in the eye to Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
In recent weeks, he has led a tour of Republican senators to presidential battleground states, including Nevada, faulting the Democrats for not acting to stop automatic spending cuts to defense that go into effect January 2013 unless Congress acts.
Democrats say Republicans who voted for the cuts are trying to wriggle out of last August’s deficit-cutting agreement and that they must consider tax increases to stave off reductions. McCain voted for the cuts.
Paul Lycos, an alternate convention delegate from Phoenix, Ariz., called McCain an "American hero."
"At some point in the future, he’ll think about retiring," Lycos said. "He’s shaping the next generation of political leaders with the intent of passing the baton."
Until then, McCain is fulfilling his GOP role, speaking out on behalf of Romney, a man he beat in 2008. McCain’s candidacy had been left for dead in the summer of 2007, but he came back to surprise the party and knock out candidates like the former Massachusetts governor.
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, McCain promoted Romney’s bid. He also conceded that the convention in Minnesota in 2008 wasn’t far from his mind.
"I feel a certain amount of nostalgia for four years ago," he told reporters. "But I’ve certainly moved on."