Cronyism, favoritism and Jesse-ism

McCain goes after Bush, Bush goes after McCain -- could it be Nature Boy to the rescue?

Published January 19, 2000 6:00PM (EST)

Inside Baseball

Monday the Bush-allied New York State Republican Committee announced that it would challenge half of John McCain's ballots for insufficient signatures. New York state's primary registration process is one of the most restrictive, and susceptible to political tinkering, in the nation and the Bush campaign moved swiftly there to line up the all-important support of party leaders. The question of whether a deal has been cut with New York Gov. George Pataki for a slot on the ticket can wait for another day because, what's this? It's a bird, no a plane, no it's Steve Forbes to the rescue. Just when he'd been consigned to the dust heap of also-rans new information reveals him taking the fight to New York by challenging some of Bush's ballot registrations. Even Rudy Giuliani has come to McCain's defense. Tuesday he delivered a sharp rebuke to the GOP for shutting out all but the anointed one. So much for the Pataki/Giuliani love fest.

McCain's not taking this treatment lying down. Tuesday he proclaimed, "[Gov. Bush] continues to sit silent as the New York GOP uses Stalinist politics to control the presidential primary in the state."

More allegations of Bush favoritism are coming from Louisiana where an early primary was canceled at the behest of Bush ally Gov. Mike Foster. The official justification was low turnout but Gary Bauer has other suspicions.

End of the Affair

Team Bush, meanwhile, charges the media is simply hungry for a fight between the front-runner and McCain. The Houston Chronicle reports that the Bush camp is "doing a slow burn" at what they see as media favoritism toward McCain. "He's not the front-runner, and he's not held to the same standard of scrutiny the front-runner is," Karen Hughes, Bush's spokeswoman, said of McCain. "I understand the media is human. The media likes an underdog ... But I do think, if you look at the standards of scrutiny, they're a little different."

Another media love affair is apparently drawing to a close. For months Bill Bradley was treated with doses of reverence and interest. But given the polls, and his recent descent into the ring -- always characterized as "throwing elbows" out of respect for his NBA history -- journalists may be feeling a bit spurned and are striking back. Articles are now more critical of his ideas and campaign tactics, and journalists are already commenting on how the media has changed course.

Bradley isn't doing much to discourage the pack; he continues to deflate expectations for his performance in the Iowa caucuses. His goal stands at 30 percent, a number based on what Ted Kennedy was able to pull in 1980. That said, he's made a commitment for the long term. Tuesday he announced that he'd be in the primary race through its second and final phase, Super Tuesday.

Bush/McCain/Taxes, Part 2

It looks like the Bush/McCain relationship is also on the rocks. The two continue to go tit for tat on taxes in an increasingly high-volume exchange that's getting downright nasty. Bush began a new name-calling offensive Saturday, trying to label a payroll tax write-off cut from McCain's plan as a tax increase. Tuesday, McCain tried to wrestle the tax-cut issue away from Bush when he challenged Bush to support a permanent ban on Internet taxation. Bush fired back with an advertising campaign in New Hampshire that focused on the payroll tax reduction. The McCain camp immediately reacted with a press release claiming that Bush had gone negative and that, "Gov. Bush's two-step may play down in Texas, but here in New Hampshire voters won't dance to this negative tune." At this point both teams are blustering. Neither has yet to create a truly negative attack ad and both are avoiding the characterization as such. But Bush can afford to produce as many ads as he wants characterizing McCain in whatever manner his campaign managers see fit.

But that's all politics. McCain wants you to believe that the real issue is saving Social Security. His tax plan is predicated on the idea that given a flush economy voters will be much more concerned with their future welfare than a big tax cut. Bush is banking on the importance of tax cuts to the traditional Republican base that votes in primaries and caucuses. But what happens in the general election when it's revealed that Bush's plan leaves almost nothing for Social Security? Even though the congressional whisper number for the surplus is rising, there's still not enough in it to save Social Security and voters are starting to wake up to the conflict. A recent Dallas Morning News/Houston Chronicle poll revealed that 50 percent of Texans don't believe that G.W. Bush can do his dad one better and not to raise taxes. Only 34 percent said he was up to the task.

It's Steve!

As Bush opened an advertising blitz characterizing Forbes as a spoiler the publishing scion received a minor groundswell of media attention. Since the Iowa caucus is his best chance to gain a toehold in the GOP primary, journalists are taking another look. The stories revolve around his newly found social conservatism, money (of course) and a fatal lack of charisma. Tuesday conservative doyenne Phyllis Schafley essentially endorsed Forbes. Other prominent social conservatives such as Paul Weyrich explained why they are supporting the ideological carpetbagger over lifelong social conservatives like Gary Bauer. It's the money, stupid. They view Forbes as the only candidate rich and organized enough to mount a serious campaign against Bush, if he manages to get that far. No writers have tired of noting the Forbes campaign's rigorous attention to campaign detail. Apparently one of the few comforts of the Iowa campaign is that no one goes hungry at Camp Forbes and everyone comes away with a nice long-sleeved Forbes 2000 shirt. Unfortunately for Forbes, voters don't find him particularly inspiring. "That's the sad part. Forbes has the message but the other guy has the charisma," the Post wrote. Evidently money can't buy you love.

The Body, redux?

For those of us who like a little WWF with our GOP, these are the salad days. It's not every year we get to enjoy the spectacle of professional wrestling in the ring and the statehouse -- though that seems to be changing, and fast. After rumors of a Hulk Hogan presidential candidacy, Ric "Nature Boy" Flair is now considering a run for governor of North Carolina. Tuesday, in an appearance on "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee," Nature Boy professed interest in the governorship, perhaps as an independent candidate.

By Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

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