GULFPORT, Miss. - John McCain engaged in a physical confrontation in 1987 with a left-wing Sandinista leader during a diplomatic meeting in Nicaragua, according to one of his colleagues, Sen. Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican.
Still, Cochran told the Sun Herald of Biloxi, Miss., on Monday that he'd witnessed a confrontation between McCain and a Sandinista leader that shocked him, in which McCain "got mad at the guy and he just reached over there and snatched him."
Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972 and to the U.S. Senate in 1978, Cochran typically measures his words and his actions carefully. But he drew wide national notice in January when he told The Boston Globe his judgment of his longtime Senate colleague McCain.
"The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine," Cochran told the Globe. "He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me."
The two senators have since made peace. Cochran said McCain had included him on a recent campaign visit to Mississippi. He told the Sun Herald on Monday that McCain is the best man for the job.
But he also said that he'd observed McCain engaging in a physical tussle with a Sandinista while on a diplomatic mission led by Sen. Bob Dole and others in the fall of 1987. Cochran, McCain - who'd been elected to the Senate the year before - and other members of a bipartisan committee of lawmakers called the Central American Negotiations Observer Group met with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, the head of the left-wing Sandinista political party, Cochran said.
The atmosphere was tense, as the United States was pressing "pretty hard." Cochran said he noticed a disturbance at the meeting table in a room lined with armed personnel.
"McCain was down at the end of the table and we were talking to the head of the guerrilla group here at this end of the table, and I don't know what attracted my attention," Cochran said. "But I saw some kind of quick movement at the bottom of the table and I looked down there and John had reached over and grabbed this guy by the shirt collar and had snatched him up like he was throwing him up out of the chair to tell him what he thought about him or whatever. I don't know what he was telling him but I thought, good grief everybody around here has got guns and we were there on a diplomatic mission. I don't know what had happened to provoke John, but he obviously got mad at the guy and he just reached over there and snatched him."
No punches were thrown, and the two sat back down, he said. The man, who appeared to be ruffled after the confrontation, was an associate of Ortega's, but Cochran said he was unsure of his identity.
Flash-forward 21 years. McCain was traveling in Latin America on Tuesday and made a stop in Colombia. Ortega won his office back in 2006 after losing a 1990 election.
Cochran said he supported McCain and that the Arizona senator had turned into the best presidential candidate he could have imagined. McCain is levelheaded now, Cochran said. He thinks that McCain, whom he described as courageous, hardworking and better equipped to handle the nation's current challenges, is a better choice for president than Democrat Barack Obama.
Newsom reports for the Sun Herald of Biloxi, Miss.
© 2008 McClatchy Newspapers