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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Vodka Contest Helps Senators' Friendship

WASHINGTON -- Two summers ago, on a congressional trip to Estonia, U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton astonished her traveling companions by suggesting that the group do what one does in the Baltics: hold a vodka-drinking contest.

Delighted, the leader of the delegation, Senator John McCain, quickly agreed. The after-dinner drinks went so well -- memories are a bit hazy on who drank how much -- that McCain, an Arizona Republican, later told people how unexpectedly engaging he found Clinton to be. "One of the guys" was the way he described Clinton, a New York Democrat, to some colleagues.

Clinton and McCain went on to develop an amiable if professionally calculated relationship. They took more official trips together, including to Iraq. They worked together on the Senate Armed Services Committee and on the issue of global warming. They made a joint appearance last year on "Meet the Press," interacting so congenially that the moderator, Tim Russert, joked about their forming a "fusion ticket."

The interplay between the two senators, both well known and both with compelling personal narratives and a knack for infuriating their own parties' bases, could determine the tone of the 2008 presidential race and make it less personally vicious than the last two campaigns. Of course, McCain and Clinton are a long way from facing off for the presidency, although they are at the top of the polls for their parties' nominations. Neither has even officially announced a candidacy, and both would still have to endure a primary season that is shaping up to be intense.

Still, members of both parties are already speculating about what a McCain-Clinton race would be like.

"If they get through a primary election, they would be polar opposites on policy," said U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. "But I believe that the personal relationship hopefully could survive the political process."

Clinton and McCain share not just a title, but also a general approach to politics. Both strive to be seen as willing to break with ideological orthodoxy from time to time and to work across the aisle. Both emerged from nasty political battles -- Whitewater and her husband's impeachment in her case, the 2000 Republican primaries in his -- declaring their hatred of the "politics of personal destruction," as former U.S. President Bill Clinton called it.

A friendly relationship, or just the appearance of one, brings risks and advantages to both. McCain is weakest among conservative Republicans, who dislike his willingness to take independent stands and work with Democrats. Clinton, by contrast, has been working to convince moderate voters that she is a centrist who can work across the aisle, a claim bolstered by McCain's tacit approval of her.

Both senators are accustomed to being sought out by other politicians hoping to burnish their own images. What makes their rapport different, advisers said, is that Clinton and McCain are essentially of equal stature.

During their Estonia trip -- also attended by Graham and U.S Senators John Sununu, Republican of New Hampshire, and Susan Collins, Republican of Maine -- McCain and Clinton were the ones recognized as they walked through the streets of the capital, Tallinn.

It was during their joint trip to Iraq in late February 2005 that McCain and Clinton appeared via satellite on "Meet the Press," an appearance that put their civility on display. When Russert asked McCain at the end of the interview whether he thought Clinton would make a good president, Clinton came to his rescue, saying: "Oh, we can't hear you, Tim!"

"Yeah, you're breaking up," McCain added, laughing. But then he said: "I happen to be a Republican and would support, obviously, a Republican nominee, but I have no doubt that Senator Clinton would make a good president."

Asked the same question about him, Clinton replied without skipping a beat: "Absolutely."