A GOP rebel in Dixie

If passionate presidential candidate John McCain hopes to topple George W. Bush, he may have to dare to be boring.

Published December 17, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Arizona Sen. John McCain is betting on video poker.

In last year's gubernatorial race in South Carolina, video poker magnates utilized unregulated, unlimited "soft money" donations to topple their enemy, Republican Gov. David Beasley. It got ugly and slimy. The video poker interests funneled their new-found wealth, amassed largely from the not-so-spare change of ignorant poor people, into tens of millions of dollars in campaign checks to the state Democratic Party and to "independent" groups that ran issue ads targeting Beasley.

McCain is hoping that memories of that grim debacle will help residents of the Palmetto State understand why he's made campaign-finance reform his cause. "They've seen the influence of soft money and how it can affect the whole political scene," McCain says. "There's no doubt that huge amounts of money came into this state and that campaign."

McCain's maverick message has found takers in New Hampshire, where he leads Texas Gov. George W. Bush in most polls, and where on Thursday morning he and Democratic former Sen. Bill Bradley held a joint press conference pledging to refuse party soft money if they become their respective party nominees.

But a New Hampshire primary win does not a nomination make. So McCain is also looking about 1,000 miles south, to the state with an estimated 400,000 veterans -- the highest per capita population of vets in the nation -- whom the former Vietnam prisoner of war constantly urges to join him "on one last mission."

"We're still very far behind and I think the odds are still against success," McCain said. But the strategy to change that is fairly simple. "It's win New Hampshire, win South Carolina."

For this reason, McCain didn't even spend the night in Iowa -- a state he's written off -- after Monday's debate in Des Moines. He hopped on a plane and flew to Charleston, S.C., for his 18th trip to the state since November 1998.

McCain worked closely with former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole during his '96 run for the White House, and clearly looks to Dole's campaign for lessons. After seeing his campaign temporarily derailed by Pat Buchanan's New Hampshire upset, McCain says, Dole got his campaign back on track in South Carolina. McCain doesn't want to let Bush deflate any momentum from any New Hampshire bounce McCain may receive. So South Carolina "is critical," said McCain.

According to a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, McCain and front-running Bush would enter a statistical tie if McCain were to win a few early primary victories. "This suggests that Bush's support is based partly on the perception that he is a winner, and might fade in the aftermath of several early season losses," the CNN analysis stated. "McCain's newfound strength is due to Americans knowing more about him, and in this case, familiarity breeds respect."

McCain's fighting odds are far worse than a rigged video poker machine. Bush has tons more money and the support of much of the GOP establishment, including the four highest South Carolina Republican officeholders -- the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the House, the attorney general, Sen. Strom Thurmond -- as well as popular ex-Gov. Caroll Campbell. To woo veterans, the Bush campaign has been running TV ads addressing national defense and has secured the support of the state adjutant general, who heads up the National Guard. In a late-November CNN/Time Magazine poll of likely South Carolina Republican primary voters, Bush led McCain 62 percent to 15 percent.

McCain's internal polls show that he has chipped away at that lead in the last three weeks, cutting Bush's lead from 47 points to 26. This slight erosion has proven to McCain strategists that Bush's lead is as soft and squishy as his candidacy, that his chief selling point has been his inevitability. They say that unlike New Hampshirites who are taught from womb on to live and breathe presidential primary politics, South Carolinians are only just beginning to pay attention to this race.

"Gov. Bush had inherited his father's organization which is very impressive here in South Carolina," says Rep. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., a member of the class of '94, a former House impeachment manager and one of McCain's two congressional endorsers in the state. "But here's the dynamic I see happening. This is the post-Clinton election. And in South Carolina, military service is much appreciated.

"The thing that John has going for him is his personal story attracts the attention of the voters," Graham says. "When you compare him with the Clinton era you have differences in every area that matters in South Carolina. You'll have a different commander in chief, one who understands the nature of the military and who's served himself. Look at the campaign problems you had with the president and his crowd ... and here you've got a guy who's willing to take money as much as he can out of politics. That's going to resonate well here."

But McCain is not just a contrast with Clinton -- he is noticeably different from his fellow GOP rivals. On Wednesday at Converse College here in Spartanburg, McCain -- on the defensive from Bush and Bush surrogates who lamely argue that campaign-finance reform is un-Republican -- took on the GOP establishment, arguing that the GOP needs "a grass-roots movement to lead our party back from a leadership that has too often forgotten our conservative purpose, and too often surrendered to Washington's big-money-driven status quo."

Graham, one of the leaders of the failed coup attempt against ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich, knows something about a GOP leadership he regards as failing its grass roots. He thinks that McCain will be able to succeed without the RNC's help. Graham, in fact, sees McCain as the leader who can pick up the pieces of the 1994 Republican revolution.

"If you want somebody that gets the spirit of '94 back into politics where we were going to take the government and reform it, John's your man," Graham said. "He's not for the inside-the-Beltway Republican machine. I think Bush is getting a lot of support from the special interests in this country 'cause he's a safe bet. John McCain scares them. And scaring them is going to please most South Carolinians."

McCain has seized on South Carolina because it is a state that fits him. McCain's campaign here, as everywhere, is all about his compelling bio and his campaign-finance reform battles. On Monday, McCain launched two radio ads all about his POW experience. The ads, "A Christmas Story" and "Forged by Fire," are both narrated by McCain's senior ranking officer and a fellow ex-POW, Lt. Col. George "Bud" Day.

"Christmas of 1971 was centered around scripture that John had gotten from the first Bible we had been able to get from the Vietnamese," Day says in the first radio ad. "John composed an extremely compelling sermon that night about the importance of Christmas ... I think it was certainly a shot to everyone's morale to hear those Christian words in that very un-Christianlike place."

It resonates, no question. There is no candidate with a more compelling personal story, or one with a better ability to make a bus full of reporters feel as weak-kneed as a nerdy freshman to whom the football-team captain has suddenly taken a liking.

Forget the fact that the footballer's only being nice because he needs the frosh to help him cram for his exams -- the attention still feels good.

McCain says his accessibility to the media is also something he learned from mistakes made during the Dole campaign. In an R.V. packed with reporters, as we drove from a diner in Lexington to a women's college in Spartanburg, McCain -- gregarious, funny and outspoken as always -- sat and chatted with us and explained why he, unlike any other major candidate, hung out with us so often, as he was doing at that very moment.

"I learned in the Dole campaign, and maybe I over-learned, OK? I'm sure that I've over-learned things all my life, but when Dole cut off relations with the media because of the tobacco flap ... I don't think it was helpful to his campaign at all."

McCain said it was an error in judgment, "when [Dole] had a group of people in the back of the airplane that were trying to do their jobs -- which required some kind of interface with the media -- and his campaign people cut off a guy who, one of his greatest assets was his relations with the media.

"A lot of the people on that plane knew him for years and they liked him. What do I mean by 'liked him' -- they would not sandbag him because maybe he said too much, because they knew him very well. So again, maybe you over-learn those lessons, but the people on the back of that plane were very unhappy and they were unhappy because they couldn't do their job. Their job was to cover the candidate. How can you cover the candidate if you're not allowed to speak to him?"

"Do you think the media's too liberal?" I asked.

"Sure," he joked. "Buncha commies." He turned to one reporter and laughingly accused her of being "one of the few Trotskyites left in America."

"I think the bias of the media probably is left of center if I had to judge it in its entirety," he said. "But now there's so much media in America today. There's Rush Limbaugh. There's the guy who broadcasts in Nevada about all of those conspiracies -- what's his name? Bell. He has one of the highest ratings in America ... So I don't think this 'liberal or conservative bias' has any role. I think the overwhelming majority of people in the media report stories in as objective a fashion as they can."

I asked him how much he actually liked us, and how much he was schmoozing us so we would write nice stories about him.

"I'm a great suck-up," he joked. "It's the worst kind of shameless behavior."

He motioned to his campaign consultants, his somewhat gloomy political director John Weaver and impish strategist Mike Murphy. "But if I didn't [spend time with reporters] I'd have to spend time with the exciting, wonderful, 'Sunny' John Weaver, who always brightens every room he walks into. Or Murphy -- [I'd have to] listen to his bullshit for hours on end. Look at the options I have!" He joked that he only keeps Weaver and Murphy on his payroll because "deep down I have a fundamental sense of charity."

"Murphy is very entertaining," McCain went on. "When the temper thing was going on, Murphy says, 'Here's what you're gonna do. We're gonna say "banjo" and you're GONNA GO CRAZY!'"

We all were in hysterics.

"It's gonna be 'Operation Banjo,'" McCain laughed.

But despite the frenetic pace of his campaign, and the media access that no other top-tier candidate even remotely provides, McCain is in danger of leaning too much on the three bullet points of his campaign strategy -- POW, campaign-finance reform, free media.

As evidenced by the health-care address he delivered before a group of Rotarians on Tuesday in Charleston, McCain is getting a little intellectually lazy -- even for a senator, let alone a man trying to stake a claim on the toughest job in the world.

McCain's health-care plan aims to provide coverage for the 44 million uninsured Americans by chipping around the edges of existing plans, rather than initiating sweeping reform. The McCain plan focuses on seniors, children and veterans. He would provide a block grant to states to help seniors pay for prescription drugs and begin a five-state demonstration program to help seniors fund catastrophic-illness drug expenses.

Millions of kids are eligible for health-care coverage, he said, under Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), so parents need to be made aware of these programs. Small businesses need to form purchasing pools with other small businesses so they can all afford health care for their employees. He pledged to overhaul the veterans health-care system.

"Our men and women who actively served in uniform were pledged quality health care for themselves and their families, in return for their pledge of duty to the country," McCain intoned to affirming applause.

But McCain doesn't like to give long speeches, so in this "major address" he cut out sentences, paragraphs and even pages from his speech. It was no big deal -- reporters had copies of the text in its entirety and the TV cameras had their multisecond sound bites. And McCain can read a crowd pretty well, and he was probably accurate when he guessed that there were more than a few restless Rotarians. After his speech, he opened the floor to questions and brought the Rotarians back to life.

But when I asked him why he cut out all the substance in his speech, he said that he hated to bore the audience. McCain's one of the most courageous men in the Senate today, but he's going to have to learn to be brave enough to be boring.

In his post-speech press conference, McCain seemed unsure of the costs of the points of his plan, and sketchy on some of its details. "We'll get those numbers to you," he told reporters -- someone had misplaced the sheet on which the cost breakdowns were listed.

He's also going to have to learn the ins and outs of issues he is less passionate about. When pressed for details on his plan, like why pharmaceuticals cost less in Canada and Mexico than in the United States, he was hardly as well-versed on the subject as he is on other matters, like national security and governmental reform. He just kept repeating -- to himself maybe more than us -- how "very important" the subject at hand is.

While the media gave him a pass on Tuesday, as they did when Bradley decided to wing his foreign policy address at Tufts University a few weeks ago, McCain should not rely on his ability to coast on his charm.

His lightness on health-care policy is certainly no lighter than the front-runner who has clearly begun hearing his footsteps. But the candidate who delivered his policy address that day was not the John McCain who seems eager to learn as he goes along, and has been known to recite poetry off the cuff. It was the one who graduated fifth from the bottom of his class at Annapolis.

After all, Bush can smirk and call McCain "a good man" before the cameras all he wants, but his team is still playing to win. And that means defeating McCain. After Elizabeth Dole dropped out, when Bush and McCain staffers were cruising South Carolina trying to pick up homeless Dole supporters, someone had gotten to many of them and dished about McCain's messy first marriage.

And, in the smoker's paradise of the South, McCain's support for a tobacco tax is going to be shoved down the lungs of every smoker from Richmond to New Orleans. McCain will argue that the tax on cigarettes will actually save taxpayers the $60 billion they lose in Medicare and Medicaid-funded treatment for tobacco-related illnesses, but by the time the Bushies have finished dressing up McCain, he'll be a gun-hating liberal and the word "tobacco" will be long gone from the word "tax." It's unclear if his bio and charm will be enough.

McCain's inability to sell his health-care plan may actually stem from a lesson he learned from Dole's '96 travesty about the importance of being genuine.

"You can't espouse a view or a policy that you don't believe in," McCain said on the bus, "because the audience won't believe it. The people you're trying to sell it to won't believe it. [Dole's 1996 proposal for a] 15-percent tax cut in and of itself was a great idea. But no one believed that Bob Dole felt that was a viable option. So I think you've got to keep away from people saying, 'Gee, this resonates in the poll,' 'This is your chance to catch up,' 'Take this position.'

"If you don't believe it," McCain said, "don't do it."

When it comes to believing in things, McCain may soon need to look to more than just campaign finance, military preparedness and himself. He is a passionate man, but his lack of passion for health care was obvious. His candidacy may soon need to develop passion for other issues -- ones in which he won't be able to stride around like a maverick. Either that, or he may need to look to Bush and Clinton for lessons on how to fake it.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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John Mccain R-ariz.