How the Internet could save John McCain

The man trailing Bush lays out a subversive strategy for catching up.

By Anthony York

Published November 23, 1999 11:13AM (EST)

As Sen. John McCain struggles to catch up with a campaign whose popularity has outstripped its infrastructure, he and his aides say the Internet is key to his presidential hopes.

With a new front-loaded primary system in which the nomination may be
settled as early as March 7, McCain aide Wes Gullett said the Arizona Republican has plans to use the medium to mobilize supporters if the campaign continues
to gain momentum after the early primary states of New Hampshire and South
Carolina. So far, those are two of only three states -- Arizona is the third -- in which McCain has campaign operations.

Gullett said McCain is hoping to model his effort on Jesse Ventura's
upset win in the Minnesota governor's race in 1998. "Jesse launched a three-day bus tour at the
end of the campaign, and everywhere he went, he put the word out on the
Internet for his supporters to meet him," Gullett says, and he hopes McCain will benefit from a similar, techno-populist spike.

The Internet has already provided a sizable financial bounce for McCain: He's raised more than $1 million in cyberspace, counting the federal matching funds
candidates receive for contributions of $250 or less. McCain's Web site has been widely praised as one of the campaign's best.

But the Internet is only one component of McCain's somewhat subversive strategy for catching up with megafunded frontrunner George W. Bush. In New Hampshire, his campaign is busy targeting independents, who can cross over and vote in the Republican primary on Election Day. And in his home state of Arizona, McCain has set a goal of re-registering 5,000 Democrats as Republicans and bringing them to the polls for their favorite son.

McCain is targeting Latinos, American Indians and Jews among Democrats. When he last ran for Senate, he won 55 percent of the Latino vote and got the endorsement of all 22 American Indian tribal chairs in the state.

His staff says he's "guaranteed" a victory in Arizona, though polls have shown the race with Bush closer than that. But he needs a strong performance in New
Hampshire and South Carolina to stay alive. Spokesman Dan Schnur said earlier this week
that a new McCain office would be opening soon in Michigan, and
groundwork is being done for opening operations in California, where Schnur was a top aide to former Gov. Pete Wilson.

But since the campaign "is not going to have the resources to match
Bush," Gullett said "we're going to be pretty dependent on the Internet to
get the word out."

Because of this cycle's accelerated primary schedule, there will be
no time to transform a February media spike in New Hampshire into a
sustained effort to wrestle momentum away from an entrenched front-runner
such as Bush, whose prodigious fund-raising will enable him to buy as much
television as he wants this campaign season.

In years past, with primaries
sprinkled throughout the spring, a win in New Hampshire could translate
into campaign dollars, which the campaign would spend on television ads and
direct-mail pieces while an insurgent candidate gradually picked up
delegates and momentum state by state. "But this year, there's just no
time," Gullett said. "You come out of South Carolina on Saturday [Feb.
19], the following Tuesday you have Michigan and Arizona, and then on March
7, California and 15 other states go to the polls."

After a Los Angeles Times Poll showed McCain with 24 percent of the GOP primary vote in the Golden
State, even though he has not spent much time or money there, the
senator was encouraged. "That is pretty remarkable in California
that we're already up to 20-something," McCain said. "It helps with the
perception out there, especially among your supporters. It fires them up.

The frank McCain says not to believe politicians who say they don't care about the polls. "Since we got in a tie with Bush [in New Hampshire], the phone rings off the
hook. People say that polls don't make all that much difference, but it can
churn stuff in a campaign. There's nothing worse in a campaign than to get
a bad poll. It's terrible. Everybody knows it's a snapshot, everybody knows
they're meaningless, but they come in bad, and everyone's morale is in the

When asked if the Los Angeles Times poll made him decide to invest more seriously in California, the senator gave a slow, exaggerated nod in the affirmative.

But with 13 media markets, California is the costliest state
in the nation to campaign in. So it is in California where McCain hopes to
take advantage of the cost-saving possibilities of the Internet as a means
of communicating with and rallying core supporters.

The former POW admits he's not the most tech-savvy guy, saying his wife Cindy is "the technologically
oriented one" in the family. But he says he acknowledges the "revolutionary"
potential of the medium. "Maybe not this year, but in the next few years the Internet
will completely turn political campaigns upside-down," McCain said, zipping
between campaign stops in Arizona Monday

Of course, it's possible the media-beloved McCain says that to all the Internet

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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