A feeling is building up inside me, and, rather than continue trying to keep it to myself, rather than deny it any further, I think it's time finally to open up and discuss it publicly. I didn't want this to happen. I know it shouldn't be happening. But it is: I'm falling for John McCain, the former POW and current senator from Arizona who finally made his presidential candidacy official on September 27.

Thus, I join the ranks of the largest and most dewy-eyed media fan club to glom on to any presidential candidate, real or wished-for, since the great swoon over Colin Powell in 1995. I hate myself for being a part of this pack-- for exhibiting so little originality or independence. My family and friends might disown me for succumbing, even tentatively, to the allure of a Republican, and a pretty conservative one at that. But the guy is running such a terrific campaign, speaking so forthrightly about so many matters of real substance, that I just find him irresistible.

And I'm not even talking about the issue that has won McCain the uncritical attention of so many other pundits: campaign finance reform. I couldn't care less about his quixotic campaign to abolish soft money donations, partly because I think this ostensible anti-corruption drive is actually questionable in terms of its impact on free speech, and partly because I think it's just futile. Rather, what impresses me most about McCain is that he is the only candidate who has, so far, articulated a tough-minded and morally robust approach to foreign policy. Sure, maybe I trust him more on these matters because there's something about a man who used to be in uniform. But even adjusted for the ex-POW-and-son-and-grandson-of-admirals effect, his ideas would be the best anyone's put forth so far.

I guess I began falling for McCain's foreign policy during the Kosovo crisis, when he stood up in the Senate in favor of giving President Clinton the option to use ground troops. This position was not only vindicated by events (Milosevic capitulated only when nato seemed to be turning from an air- only war to a ground attack), but taking it was a real political risk for McCain. Polls showed the American public deeply ambivalent about the idea, and he was both bucking his party and pushing a reluctant White House. But McCain did it because he understood that American values and interests demanded that we stop mass murder in the Balkans and stabilize Europe and that these were values and interests worth fighting and dying for.

At a time when politicians, including the president, routinely shrink from the very idea that any American should ever die in war, no matter how worthy the cause, McCain's stand was gutsy. This is one Vietnam vet--indeed, one who suffered terribly himself in that war--who doesn't have a case of Vietnam Syndrome. McCain understands this central lesson of the twentieth century: the supposed dichotomy between pursuing our values and pursuing our interests is a false one. As he put it in a superb August 24 speech to the World Affairs Council of Northern California, "For the United States, values and interests are inextricably linked, and, traditionally, American leaders have designed policies to serve both ends." McCain correctly identifies the Achilles' heel of Clinton foreign policy as "self-doubt"--too often this administration acts as if it needs to ask other nations' pardon for doing what is manifestly right and justified, such as bombing Saddam Hussein's Iraq or challenging North Korea over its dangerous nuclear program.

He is the only candidate to have evinced appropriate disgust at the moral handwringing of a Democratic administration seemingly uncomfortable with the idea that American power is, and historically has been, a force for good in the world. In the same speech, he lamented the fact that "the president often spends a portion of his overseas visits apologizing for one or another American transgression against the host country." He added that "a world where our ideals had a realistic chance of becoming a universal creed was our principle object in this century" and should be in the next.

As the administration tinkers with the details of its "containment" plans for the Persian Gulf and endeavors to sweeten its appeasement package for the Stalinists in Pyongyang, McCain boldly calls for a policy of "rollback" toward rogue states such as Iraq and North Korea. With regard to China, McCain wisely advocates drawing a line in the Taiwan Strait, on the sound principle that only a clear American signal to Beijing to back off will ensure that China never starts a war over the island. "Engagement is not surrender," he says. "In our pursuit of a strategic partnership with China we have spent more time wondering how to couch our diplomacy in language that won't give offense to Beijing than we have making clear the force of our opposition to China's increasing assertiveness in disputed territorial questions in Asia. Isn't the point of our relationship with China to maintain international stability, protect our security and encourage political reforms? The relationship is not an end in itself."

McCain has explicitly attacked the rank isolationism that is rampant both in his party and in the leftmost precincts of the Democratic Party. Perhaps more impressively, he has at least implicitly sketched an argument against the "realism" that appears to be gaining ground in the George W. Bush camp (and which, along with Bush's own inexperience in such matters, probably accounts for the muddled and insincere way that the GOP front-runner reacted to the Kosovo crisis--see "Team W.," by Jacob Heilbrunn, September 27). McCain likes America's sole-superpower status and seeks to exploit it; he doesn't fret unduly about "imperial overstretch" and other exaggerated menaces. He knows that, to some degree, being a superpower must be a use-it- or-lose-it proposition.

There is a connection between McCain's moral clarity about foreign policy and his moral clarity about the latest menace to the integrity of the Republican Party: Pat Buchanan and his grotesque view that World War II was the result of Anglo-American provocations against Nazi Germany. Once again, McCain didn't mince words about what Buchanan should do: Hit the road. This stand showed McCain was willing to take one of the great lessons of the century's struggle against totalitarianism--appeasement doesn't work--and apply it to an apologist for totalitarianism in his own party. "No political campaign is worth sacrificing our principles," he said.

George W., by contrast, played the role of Neville Chamberlain. As front- runner, he has greater responsibilities, which supposedly include the obligation not to build Buchanan up by paying attention to his outrageous views. Better to keep Buchanan inside the party, he said, so as not to drive off his purportedly numerous supporters. "It's politics," he told the Associated Press. " S hould I be the nominee ... I'm going to need every vote I can get among Republicans to win the election." Thus does the student of foreign policy realists practice campaign realism on the home front. Maybe it's not so crazy to join the pack swooning for McCain after all.

By Charles Lane