YOU PROBABLY MISSED the first primary in the 2000 Republican presidential race, but Sen. John McCain won it. So says Vin Weber, the former GOP congressman from Minnesota and a McCain adviser. No, it was the "first quarter" in the fight for the presidential nomination that McCain just won, says Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager. No, says Greg Stevens, McCain's media consultant, it was a "contest" that "contrasted" McCain with the other candidates, especially Texas governor George W. Bush, the GOP front-runner. McCain won, naturally. No, says media consultant Mike Murphy, it was a battle for favorable "buzz" in the political community. McCain, of course, won, planting "a seed from which a great oak can grow." Murphy doesn't work for McCain, but talks to him occasionally and certainly likes him.

McCain is the strongest Republican voice on Kosovo, but let's not get carried away. His campaign team thinks it's already a two-person race, McCain versus Bush, but they're dreaming. Even McCain is dubious of how much he's gained from all the visibility and good press on Kosovo. "Suppose this gets settled within two months," he says. "It's over. Will the primary voters lapse back into apathy about foreign affairs and national security?" McCain thinks they're likely to.

Though the Republican race hasn't been transformed, McCain's presidential bid has gotten a boost. His poll numbers haven't jumped, but he's made a strong impression on the folks who matter now, eight months before the first caucus or primary. This is mainly an elite group of Washington politicians, lobbyists, consultants, and journalists, plus party activists around the country. Many of these folks thought his candidacy was a lark. I suspect now they've concluded McCain is serious and has the ability to perform under pressure as a national candidate. Once Bush starts campaigning outside Texas on June 12, he may prove he can play the game nationally too. But he hasn't demonstrated that yet.

To be more specific about McCain, he's shown three things in the debate over Kosovo that are bound to help him as a candidate. One, he can lead on a president-sized issue and pull at least a few other leaders along with him. Two, he knows how to seize control of an issue and run with it. And three, he's tireless, having done more TV, radio, and print interviews in a shorter span of time than anyone in human history. Yes, there's a fourth thing that's also important here. For all McCain's boldness on Kosovo, most Republicans don't agree with his interventionist, pro-bombing, pro-ground troops position. It's liberals who are thrilled, and they won't be participating in the Republican primaries next year.

From the start, McCain realized the folly of not backing the president in war. So he voted for the resolution -- which 38 GOP senators opposed -- authorizing the president to use military force against Slobodan Milosevic. But he also pointed to Clinton's shortcomings. (Having voted to convict on both articles of impeachment, McCain is not soft on Clinton.) "I cannot remember a single instance when an American president allowed two ultimatums to be ignored by an inferior power without responding as we threatened we would respond," he said March 23 on the Senate floor. Defying public opinion and conventional wisdom, McCain insisted winning must be the goal, and ground troops would be needed unless Milosevic acquiesced. Since then, public opinion has shifted in favor of land troops. McCain may not have been the catalyst, but he certainly was out front, leading, not following.

Two contrasts are worth noting, between McCain and Clinton, and McCain and Bush. McCain is more comfortable talking about foreign policy and war than Clinton is. Perhaps having fought in the last big war, Vietnam, gives McCain an air of confidence, while having ducked that war and then lied about it makes Clinton seem awkward and unsure. Anyway, McCain has looked more presidential than the president -- far more.

It's really unfair to contrast McCain with Bush; unfair to Bush, that is. As governor of Texas, Bush is dealing with state matters until the legislature shuts down May 31. He's not really campaigning. Besides, the race isn't supposed to have begun in earnest yet. Sorry, Governor, but politics is unfair, and campaigns wait for no candidate to get ready. Anyone who watched McCain talk about Kosovo and then listened to Bush could see that McCain is cruising, Bush is stumbling.

Over a week's time in early April, Bush moved in fits and starts toward McCain's position. His first statement said Clinton should use force "decisively and, of course, successfully." Criticized for being vague, Bush defended his statement as "measured" and "good." In an interview several days later with Dan Balz of the Washington Post, Bush revised it, saying ground troops would be fine so long as there's "a strong commitment to win" and "a clear exit strategy." Finally, on April 8, he said this: "I define the mission as to restoring Kosovo, so Kosovoians can move back in, and at the same time teach Mr. Milosevic that NATO and its ally, the United States, will not tolerate genocide." Each time, he sounded more like McCain.

McCain campaigns like Clinton -- incessantly. He appeared on eight separate shows on April 5, chatting with Larry King, Geraldo, Ollie North, and Forrest Sawyer (on Nightline), among others. The next morning, he did Imus. On April 2, he was a guest on all three network morning shows. It was 5 A.M. for him in Phoenix. On April 6, he spent the late afternoon and evening on TV shows, telephoning print reporters during the breaks. He'll have no problem keeping up in the primaries.

By then, his appeal may have narrowed. He benefits now from what Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory calls "liberal infatuation" with him. It's mostly liberals in the media like Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal. They love McCain's tobacco bill and his campaign finance reform legislation and support for bombing Serbia. But he's not going to be stressing those issues much when the primaries grow near. Instead, his topics will be tax cuts, deep spending reductions, a military buildup, and curbs on abortion. This will result in worse press coverage, but more support from Republicans. Not a bad tradeoff.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.