John McCain embraces and expels Washington like an accordion player belting out a song.
Squeeze in and he touts his vast knowledge of the capital city. Draw out and he casts himself a reformer bent on changing its ways.
It’s a remarkable dichotomy echoed throughout the Republican establishment, as a party that’s held the White House for the past eight years tries to retain its grip in what has shaped up as a change election.
"Reform becomes contagious," former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, brother of the current president, said at a McCain town hall meeting this week in Orlando. "If you start to dream bigger dreams and you start challenging the basic assumptions, you can change how things work, and we’ve done it in Florida, and the Good Lord knows we need to do it in Washington, D.C., and John McCain is the right guy at the right time to make that happen."
McCain has long considered himself a political maverick, and there’s no doubt that the Arizona senator has bucked the system — especially later in his career.
Once so close to the establishment that he had his own number in the Keating Five corruption scandal, McCain has more recently challenged the institutions of Congress with campaign finance legislation and other reform measures.
Just four years ago, McCain was enough of a bipartisan figure that Democrat John Kerry considered him as a running mate.
This time around, though, McCain is projecting a dual image: the outside insider. A 25-year veteran of the House and Senate, a white man like all the rest of the country’s presidents to date, McCain is trying to fend off a 47-year-old, first-term senator angling to become the first black to reach the Oval Office.
It’s prompted almost melodic speechmaking and statements.
Squeeze in, and he’s the new capital tour guide for his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
"I can’t wait to introduce her to Washington, D.C. I can’t wait," he said to cheers Monday in Jacksonville.
Draw out, and he sounds like he never set foot in the city himself.
"The word’s going out, my friends: The old-boy network, the pork-barrelers, the earmarkers, my friends, the word is, `Change is coming,’" McCain said. "There’s two mavericks coming to Washington, and we’re going to shake it up."
Squeeze in, and he’s got the Washington skill set needed to right the country’s Wall Street woes.
"I was the chairman on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation for six years," he told reporters aboard his "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus amid Monday’s market meltdown. "That’s the committee that oversights our economy — transportation, science, telecommunications, airlines — all of the factors that drive our economy."
Draw out, and he distances himself from the administration of the Republican president who has endorsed him. No mention of his record favoring deregulation.
"Too many firms on Wall Street have been able to count on casual oversight by regulatory agencies in Washington. And there are so many of those regulators that the responsibility for oversight is scattered, unfocused and ineffective," he told a rally crowd Tuesday in Tampa, Fla.
There are even times when McCain does both — squeeze in and draw out — in the same thought.
It sounds the note he hopes voters will hear on Election Day, that of the experienced newcomer.
"I know how to fix it. I know how to fix the corruption," he said of the nation’s economic problems during an appearance Tuesday on NBC’s "Today" show. "I’ve been fighting it the whole time I’ve been in Congress."
Glen Johnson has reported on local, state and national politics since 1985. He covers the Republican presidential campaign for The Associated Press.