Now that the long-simmering media debate over Teresa Heinz Kerry, asset or liability, has finally been put in the crockpot, what pops up but an August variation — John McCain, time-bomb or secret weapon?

In a presidential campaign scripted to the nth degree by each side, Arizona Sen. McCain is seen by reporters, as Heinz Kerry was before him, as the lone unscripted player on the scene, a sole voice of authenticity in a world of spin and talking points — and as a refreshingly on-the-record and unpredictable loose lip.

With McCain slated to appear alongside George Bush today at rallies in Phoenix and Albuquerque, the Arizona Republic’s Jon Kamman writes that “backers of Democrat John Kerry may chortle that with friends like McCain, Bush doesn’t need enemies”:

The two were intense rivals in the GOP’s 2000 presidential primaries. After losing, McCain declared tepid support for Bush. At times, McCain has been as outspoken as Democrats in opposing some of the signature issues of the Bush administration, ranging from tax cuts to Medicare reform.

Through it all, however, he has unequivocally backed the president for a second term.

After a campaign appearance yesterday in Pensacola, where Bush wrapped McCain in a giant bear-hug, Rick Klein of the Boston Globe described McCain’s high-profile appearances with Bush:

It’s been another back-and-forth week for the GOP senator whom Democrats love to love and Republicans don’t always know what to do with.

Jeff Zeleny of the Chicago Tribune filed his Bush-McCain buddy story today from, appropriately enough, Niceville, Fla. “They exchanged compliments, whispered to each other as they hugged on stage and delivered testimonials, never explaining how a tepid rapport had grown into a warm bond,” wrote Zeleny.

Few leading Republicans have aggravated the Bush administration more in the past three years than McCain. But through his wide appeal to independent voters and his indisputable military credential, few Republicans can be more of a symbolic help than McCain.

So even though the White House rejected McCain’s call late last week to denounce a television commercial critical of Kerry’s service in Vietnam, he started a two-day tour with Bush on Tuesday. After spending the night at the president’s Texas ranch, he was to continue with Bush to New Mexico and Arizona on Wednesday.

While the touchy-feely mood between the two men drew enthusiastic response from crowds in Pensacola, the Dallas Morning News’ G. Robert Hillman reported that Bush’s aides are still wary about the unpredictable Arizonan:

Despite their big bear hug at the start of the day …, their sometimes-frosty relations have not entirely thawed. And the Bush campaign high command was taking no chances.

Usually on these campaign bus trips, Mr. Bush has local reporters aboard for a chat. And on this trip, campaign aides had even considered having “Good Morning America” anchor Diane Sawyer stop by.

There were second thoughts, though, what with Mr. McCain incensed at a new television ad by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that accused Mr. Bush’s Democratic rival, John Kerry, of lying about his record in Vietnam. Mr McCain has called on the president to denounce the ad, but Mr. Bush has declined.

In case the news media was interested in reciting other subjects upon which the two Republicans have disagreed, the liberal group America Coming Together yesterday gleefully posted a long list, ranging from prescription drug re-importation to environmental protection.

Will a suddenly tight-lipped John McCain retain his sidekick role in the Bush campaign? Or will the campaign press get what it’s hoping for — an unguarded moment in which Mr. Straight Talk will call ‘em as he sees ‘em?

Or, to rephrase the question in all-too-familiar terms, will the senator prove to be an asset or gasp! a liability?

At this point, it’s pure speculation that is the fuel feeding this furnace.

Susan Q. Stranahan

Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.