There was a moment during John McCain's visit here Tuesday when I nearly fell out of my chair in happiness. It was in the middle of a political...

There was a moment during John McCain’s visit here Tuesday when I nearly fell out of my chair in happiness.

It was in the middle of a political round-table. The GOP presidential nominee sat with a bunch of business and community leaders, in an eco-center, in the woods, to talk about global warming.The locals did what locals usually do when the feds come to town: They asked for money.

A city councilman wanted help paying for a hybrid-car fleet. The chief executive of REI wanted subsidies for solar panels. Someone else wanted grants for a land-steward program.

McCain mostly sat there, listening. He’s no soaring speaker, that’s for sure. But then he did something unusual at these contrived dog-and-pony shows.

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He said “no.”

He’s wary of subsidies, he said, because they can create false markets and waste taxpayer money. He cited the collapsing corn-ethanol program, which exists in part because of politicians’ pandering for votes in places such as Iowa.

So how would he spend limited federal money instead?

This is where I became faint with bliss. McCain’s answer: science.

“Funding pure research and development is a role for the federal government,” he said.

Imagine that. A Republican who believes in science. That it ought to be nourished, not censored at the behest of religious- or corporate-interest groups, as it has these past seven years.

I have been feeling out of step lately with my fellow Seattle liberals. The reason is that when politics comes up, the knee-jerk gist of the conversation is that John McCain equals George W. Bush.

This guy ain’t Bush, folks. No matter how many times you say it. (And it is said incessantly by Democratic groups.)

My first brush with McCain was in the 1990s, when Sen. Slade Gorton was doing all he could to undermine the sovereignty and treaty rights of Indian tribes.

You know who rebuffed Gorton, repeatedly? His fellow Republican, McCain. Going to bat for Indians back then was not exactly the path to fame. McCain did it, he said at the time, because the treaties were our country’s word.

It’s similar to McCain on the issue of torture today. Waterboarding is legally and morally wrong, McCain says. It’s un-American. For this he gets vilified by the right’s pundits. Ditto with the immigration issue.

McCain’s no moderate. He doesn’t pretend to be anything but conservative. The deal-breaker for many is that he is in lock step with Bush on the war.

Still, can you imagine Bush having the curiosity to go to the Arctic to see climate change for himself? As McCain did?

This election may disappoint. They usually do. Right now, though, in McCain and Barack Obama we have two renegades trying to nudge party gridlock from the outside in. Both seem to think facts matter. Both say they want to get to what works. And both are signaling it will require some journey toward the middle.

Obama may be the once-in-a-generation opportunity. But the good news is that no matter what happens in November, we’re already far, far ahead of where we’ve been.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or