World

McCain's Magic

First, the upstart Republican crushed his opponent in New Hampshire. Now, he’s proving a real contender in ‘Bush country’

Andrew Phillips February 14 2000
World

McCain's Magic

First, the upstart Republican crushed his opponent in New Hampshire. Now, he’s proving a real contender in ‘Bush country’

Andrew Phillips February 14 2000

McCain's Magic

World

First, the upstart Republican crushed his opponent in New Hampshire. Now, he’s proving a real contender in ‘Bush country’

Andrew Phillips

It is an established custom of the American political season that everyone gets out of Dodge the moment the shooting stops. Once the votes are counted, winners and losers alike jet off to the next battlefield to glory in victory or shake off the dust of defeat as quickly as possible. So it was last week as the victors and vanquished of New Hampshire hightailed it to South Carolina for middleof-the-night rallies, as if a few hours’ sleep would amount to a confession of weakness. For George W. Bush, fresh from his rout at the hands of Republican maverick John McCain, the change of scene could not come fast enough. “It feels warmer here, if you know what I mean,” the chastened Texas governor told supporters.

New Hampshire’s voters shot McCain out of a cannon, giving him an astonishing 18-point victory over Bush in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination. At the same time, Vice-President Al Gore narrowly beat challenger Bill Bradley among Democrats, but that was reduced to a sideshow as McCain trounced the man who was supposed to stroll to his party’s nomination. The Arizona senator’s organizers had expected good news—but a win of perhaps five percentage points. “Are you kidding?” responded John Weaver, McCain’s political director, when asked if he had been ready for anything like the 49-to-31 -per-cent blowout that he scored over Bush. “Nobody saw this coming.” Especially Bush, whose campaign had been built on the presumption that he is the inevitable Republican nominee. He has more money than anyone else ($31 million U.S. in the bank), his father’s famous name and political network, and the backing of the Republican establishment. That did him little good among the unpredictable folk of New Hamp! shire, where independent voters

joined Republicans in backing the underfunded outsider, McCain. Typical was Collette Haasnoot, a 49-year-old bookkeeper in the picture-postcard village of Bow who liked Bush but went for McCain. “Bush is too sure of himself,” Haasnoot said after voting at the fire hall. “He needs to be brought down a peg or two.” The Manchester Union Leader, the state’s leading paper, put it like this: “New Hampshire voters have shown that the emperor has no clothes.”

No surprise, then, that Bush was glad to get to the friendlier territory of South Carolina, whose Republican voters are considered more receptive to his mainstream conservative message and more likely to follow party leaders in backing a front-runner. At least that was the conventional wisdom until McCain’s upset. South Carolina was supposed to be Bush’s “firewall”—the reliable place he could count on to extinguish McCains insurgent candidacy. But it was already clear last week that New Hampshire had given McCain an enormous boost. Two new polls showed he had erased Bush’s 20-point lead in South Carolina and was running even with him.

Just as important, McCain became an instant celebrity after a result that provided the first genuine excitement in an otherwise ho-hum political season. More than any other candidate, he seems to have captured voters’ yearning for direct, honest speech after the scandals and public lies of the Clinton years. His supporters call him the “anti-Clinton”— unvarnished, unpredictable, unprogrammed. However overblown, it is a potent draw that is translating into votes and money. In a first for a major candidate, his campaign Web site became a major source of instant cash, with contributors pouring in $810,000 in the two days following his victory. He will need all that and more to compete with Bush, who has solid organizations in almost every state, as well as his enormous war chest.

Bush’s strategy is to paint McCain as a quasi-liberal, soft on bedrock Republican issues like tax cuts and ending abortion. And in fact, McCain has broken with party orthodoxy by proposing smaller tax cuts than Bush, proposing instead to shore up the social security system and pay down government debt. His signature issue of curbing the influence of money in politics and his well-publicized record of endurance as a prisoner of war in Vietnam also make him attractive to mod-

erates. His supporters argue that is a winning combination, similar to Ronald Reagans broad appeal. “John McCain reaches out to conservatives and independents,” said Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina congressman who is his leading supporter in the state. “That’s the Reagan formula.”

Still, Republican power brokers have nailed their colours so firmly to Bush’s mast that a McCain victory would amount to a stinging repudiation. Already last week they were attacking McCain personally, trashing him as a Washington insider whose vaunted image as a man of unimpeachable integrity is bogus. David Beasley, a former South Carolina governor and leading Bush backer, accused McCain of cozying up to big corporations as chairman of the Senate commerce committee, and aimed the ultimate Republican insult at him: “This guy is Clintonesque.” The gloves, it was plain, were off.

South Carolina’s Republican primary on Feb. 19 now becomes the key showdown between the two men. The Texan’s early confidence about the state was based on its long-standing tradition of reliable conservative voting and old-South traditions, symbolized by the Confederate flag that flies atop the statehouse in the capital, Columbia. It also consistently backed his father, the former president, leading George W to describe South Carolina as “Bush country.” A third of Republicans in the state describe themselves as Christian conservatives, compared with just 16 per cent in New Hampshire. Bush’s first appearance there last week, in fact, was at Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist college so hidebound that it still forbids interracial dating among its students. The gov-

ernor used the word “conservative” six times in less than a minute. “It’s a different world down here,” he said with evident relief. “It’s a state that embraces conservative values.”

Bush’s campaign is expected to woo the Christian vote by arguing that McCain is not reliably pro-life. In fact, the Arizonan opposes legalized abortion, but favours amending the Republican platform to make exceptions for rape, incest and threats to a mother’s health. Anti-abortion groups also oppose his signature issue—tighter controls on the way political campaigns are financed—because they fear it would make it more difficult for them to influence candidates. Still, McCain has advantages of his own in South Carolina. It has the highest proportion of military veterans of any state— 400,000 in all—and the senator has used his saga as a POW in Vietnam to enlist their support. When he appeared at a victory rally in New Hampshire, the stage was decorated with a blown-up photo of the senator as a hunky flyboy posing in combat gear with his A-4 Skyhawk bomber.

McCain’s upset overshadowed the other result in New Hampshire—Gore’s narrow victory over former New Jersey senator Bradley. Gore drew 52 per cent of votes among Democrats to Bradley’s 47 per cent, a result close enough to allow the onetime basketball legend to continue his challenge. The Democrats, though, have no primaries until March 7, the so-called Super Tuesday when voters in 11 states including New York and California cast ballots. By then, it will be clear whether McCain’s upset over Bush was an aberration or the start of something truly big. EH]