Bush catches McCain in New Hampshire

Could this be the beginning of the end for the media darling from Arizona?

Published January 10, 2000 7:53PM (EST)

John McCain continued his vigorous defense of writing letters to government agencies on behalf of large campaign donors and returned to the attack on the issues of gays in the armed forces. The Doles can't agree on a candidate and debates are actually making a difference! Polls from Iowa and New Hampshire demonstrate a slight band of variation. Their message? McCain and Bill Bradley have precious little time to get their act together.

Tonight -- GOP presidential debate in Grand Rapids, Mich., sponsored by the Fine Arts Center of Calvin College 7-8:30 p.m. EST. The debate will also air live on C-SPAN and online.

T-minus 14 days to the Iowa Caucus
T-minus 22 days to the New Hampshire Primary

Bradley's online ad line --The Bradley campaign announced
that it had started running Internet banner
advertisements in Iowa, New Hampshire and California. The
ads will appear on Juno and Hotmail, two of the most popular
free service sites on the Web (both provide free e-mail
accounts). "Tired of politics as usual? I am. See what I'm
going to do about it," invites one ad. Another gives Web
surfers a chance to "Click here for a video message to see
what I'm going to do about it." Bradley is the latest
candidate to jump into the Internet
advertising arena,
joining Republican front-runners McCain and George W. Bush.

McCain: I will bury you! (in paperwork) -- McCain has developed a relatively unique method of combating political accusations -- releasing reams of documents. He's become a charter member of the Federal Documents Clearinghouse. His first delivery of more than 1,500 pages of medical documents in December to refute questions about his psychological stability was followed Saturday by 500 pages of letters written to federal agencies on behalf of constituents. As an insurgent candidate, perestroika offensives are one of the few tools available to McCain.

But McCain's defense appears to need some work. A new Union Leader poll shows that Bush is inching ahead of McCain while Bradley is creeping ahead of Al Gore.

Not that polls are always gospel truth. A Boston Globe poll shows McCain maintaining a razor-thin lead (35-32 percent) and Gore and Bradley in a dead heat.

The new polls could be fatal for McCain. A loss in New Hampshire would all but guarantee a derailment of his long-shot campaign. The Bush team's relentless organizational skills, Elizabeth Dole's endorsement and skillful leaks and attack ads have brought the Texas governor back into contention in the Granite State. Unless McCain can break the Bush full-court press, he'll be sitting out in the cold come Feb. 2.

But don't tell it to Bob Dole. While Elizabeth Dole spent last week campaigning for Bush (and some would say campaigning for a place on the ticket for herself), the Doles just can't agree. Sunday, in a joint appearance with his wife on ABC's "This Week" Bob Dole refused to endorse Bush, saying, "I don't want to hurt anybody's prospects. I mean, John McCain's a friend of mine."

All the white noise generated by the campaign finance brouhaha is obscuring McCain's more subtle approaches to policy. In contrast to the GOP gospel, McCain has pursued a moderate tax cut and elevated the importance of Social Security solvency within his program.

Since campaign finance has been neutralized as his main fighting issue, McCain has gravitated toward the other issue he likes to talk about -- the military. He's taken both Gore and Bradley to task on their position on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. The GOP as a whole has seized on the debate and, in a sign of things to come, has already produced an attack ad about the issue.

When spinmeisters attack -- This season, political debates have been much more fertile ground than usual, if for nothing else than sheer entertainment value.

The importance of debates has also helped create more subterranean issues. Since it's one of the few times when a large group of journalists is gathered in a single place and has to remain still for an hour, the candidate's P.R. teams have swarmed the observation rooms, leaving many reporters deaf to the actual content of the debate. Erika Mantz, a spokeswoman for New Hampshire Public Television, has told the New York Times that the station now prohibits P.R. people from mixing with journalists during the debate because the journalists "would complain because these people wouldn't leave them alone, so we made the decision to keep the filing room a sterile environment."

Gore plays Stump the Professor -- Debates are also making a difference in the content of the race. Saturday's Democratic debate had Gore actually stumping the ex-senator he so frequently accuses of being a theoretical academic. Gore hit Bradley with a barrage of questions about his voting record on agriculture aid programs that Bradley promptly dodged.

Bradley didn't take well to being put on the spot. Sunday he opened his own agro-offensive by attacking the Clinton administration's agricultural policy and Gore's role within it. "I don't think he's done virtually anything to help family farmers. You tell me, what has this administration done to help family farmers in Iowa? It has done virtually nothing. So when Al Gore comes to Iowa and says, 'Support me, I really know farming,' you tell me ... what have they done?" He sounded this theme earlier but the rhetoric is getting sharper and, for the first time, he's aggressively using Gore's name. Previously he wouldn't deign to bring himself down to that level.

Iowa,as an agricultural state, gives journalists permission to trot out those rarely used agricultural metaphors. The last few days have seen a profusion like the Miami Herald's "Bradley eyes harvest of Iowa farmers votes."

Poll: Democrats in denial? -- The latest Des Moines Register Iowa Poll shows that 75 percent of state Demos are much more positive about the direction of the nation than their GOP brethren. Not to say that Iowa Republicans are in need of Zoloft, but only 50 percent of the state's GOPers share that optimism. Maybe that's because they're so dead set on character as an issue. The poll also shows that 72 percent of Republicans say it is an "unbreakable rule" for candidates to uphold the highest personal standards of conduct while only 40 percent of Democrats agree.

In another example of Democratic optimism, Bradley claims that he'll be able to erase Gore's lead in Iowa even though the latest Des Moines Register poll shows Gore with a solid lead, 54-33 percent with only 13 percent undecided.

Leaving nothing to chance, Gore announced $1.3 billion in subsidies for farmers in Iowa and the rest of the Midwest on Friday. When that much fertilizer is sprinkled on such a small electorate, results better be guaranteed.

By Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

MORE FROM Max Garrone

Related Topics ------------------------------------------