Burning Bush

Can John McCain possibly defeat the GOP's anointed candidate?

Published February 3, 2000 10:00AM (EST)

The real winner in New Hampshire Tuesday was Vice President Al Gore. He is going to have to battle former Sen. Bill Bradley through the March 14 Super Tuesday primaries, but he should be able to wrap up the nomination by then without having seriously damaged himself politically. If Bradley couldn't win a non-union, all-white Northeastern state where independents can vote, he is going to have an impossible time in Southern states and in Northern states where union members and pro-Clinton minorities make up almost half of the primary electorate. So it's goodbye, Bradley.

And what about Gore's presumed opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush? Bush wanted to use some of his $70 million in campaign funds to start running general election ads in February. He wanted to be able to forget about Confederate flags, fetal tissue research and all the other bizarre obsessions of the Republican right, but after getting routed in New Hampshire, Bush will have to face Arizona Sen. John McCain and possibly also Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes through February and perhaps well into March. He should still win the nomination, but he will pay a price for victory.

Bush has already demonstrated serious weaknesses, and by March may have ruined his chances of beating Gore. In both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, Bush has had to rely on Republican regulars and right-wingers for his vote. He shows little sign of attracting any other voters. In Iowa, where none of his principal opponents had ever held any elective office, Bush got only 41 percent of the vote.

According to the election polling, he lost independent voters 41 to 29 percent to Forbes. He got only 33 percent of the vote among voters 18 to 29, and he lost decisively to Forbes among those voters who though the most important quality in a candidate was that he "stands up for beliefs," "understands issues" or "cares about people." Imagine! More people thought Forbes, the wealthy scion of a publishing empire and a veritable zombie on the stump, cared about them. That's a big rebuke for a so-called "compassionate conservative" whose folksy charisma is supposed to be one of his strengths.

In New Hampshire, Bush's results were equally telling. McCain obliterated him among independent voters (62 to 19 percent). The only groups among whom he bested McCain were those who described their ideology as "very conservative" and themselves as a member of the "religious right." He also did almost as well as McCain among voters who supported Bob Dole in 1996. In other words, Bush showed strength only among old guard, religious right, and very conservative Republicans -- a group that collectively constitutes at most a fifth of the general electorate and will win him Texas, Utah and a smattering of Depp South states in the general election.

McCain did spectacularly well in New Hampshire. He got more votes than the combined total of the two first finishers in 1996, Dole and Pat Buchanan. He got almost 40,000 more votes than Al Gore. If the two had been running against each other, McCain would have gotten 64 percent of the vote. Some conservative commentators like to attribute McCain's appeal entirely to "character" or "biography." McCain's heroism does count for something, and is important as contrast with Bush's callow background. When the two stand together, Bush's credibility as a presidential candidate is immediately diminished.

But McCain's heroic story is also integrally connected to his campaign promise to rid Washington of "special interests" and to convince Americans to look beyond their own "self-interest." Most people who voted for McCain -- or Bill Bradley for that matter -- don't know the details of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, but they support the broader idea of political reform. In the exit polls, Republican voters backed campaign finance reform by 80 to 13 percent. Those who backed it went 56 to 26 percent for McCain, while those who opposed it favored Bush by 53 to 19 percent.

McCain also benefited by taking a centrist position on Social Security and taxes. Rather than promising to fritter away the surplus in tax cuts that would primarily benefit the wealthy, McCain called for a smaller, more progressive tax cut and for using part of the surplus to protect Medicare and Social Security. New Hampshire Republicans divided evenly on what was more important, cutting taxes or protecting Social Security, but those who cared about the latter went overwhelming for McCain.

As national polls have shown, McCain's position on taxes and on campaign finance is far closer to the general electorate than Bush's. Bush has positioned himself as the "conservative" candidate of the right, while McCain is nicely situated on the center-right. McCain could win the presidency running as he did in New Hampshire; Bush is in a position to replicate Dole's finish against President Clinton in 1996. And the longer Bush conducts himself in this manner, the worse his chances of winning in November.

But can McCain win the nomination over Bush? McCain knows he cannot win a long war of attrition with Bush, so he hopes that by winning a string of primaries in New Hampshire and then South Carolina, Arizona and Michigan, and then embarrassing Bush in California on March 7, he can force Bush to withdraw from the race. It's a strategy that depends on political trauma. The trouble with this strategy, however, is that Bush would have to withdraw in favor of McCain, and McCain is widely disliked among Republican politicians and officials because of his unstinting support for campaign-finance reform. If Bush were to suffer a string of defeats, his backers would continue to insist that he stay in the race, even if that meant fielding a weak candidate in the fall.

If Bush can stay on his feet past March 7, it is likely that he will gain the nomination. He has already raised about five times more money than McCain and will have an edge campaigning in states where most voters only get to see the candidates on television. He also has an enormous advantage in organization. All 31 Republican governors, including the governor of Arizona, back Bush, and have put their organizations at his disposal. (One of his disadvantages in Iowa and New Hampshire was that these states have Democratic governors.)

Money and organization are probably more important in the Republican than the Democratic race, because many of the largest Republican primaries are decided on a winner-take-all basis. On March 14, Bush is almost certain to win a total of 204 delegates in Texas and in Florida, where brother Jeb is the governor. That figure alone is 19 percent of the total Bush needs to win. If McCain loses California the week before, the race is virtually over.

McCain has virtually no organization outside of South Carolina, New Hampshire and Arizona. When I asked him about it, he mentioned some veterans groups in Michigan and Washington and former Reagan speechwriter Ken Khachigian in California. He also cited his Web site. That and $1.50 will get him a ride in the subway in New York, but not the Republican nomination.

McCain may not even be able to pull off the first step in his strategy by winning South Carolina on Feb. 19. He got a bounce from his New Hampshire victory: A Zogby poll released Thursday showed him virtually tied with Bush, just a point behind. But South Carolina's Republican electorate is much more conservative than New Hampshire's. One can compare the results of the exit polls in New Hampshire in 2000 with those in South Carolina's Republican primary in 1996. In New Hampshire 16 percent of Republican primary voters said they were a member of the religious right. In South Carolina, 36 percent, and 59 percent said they had a "favorable opinion" of the religious right. Six percent in New Hampshire said abortion was the most important issue; 13 percent in South Carolina. Sixteen percent in New Hampshire identified themselves as "very conservative" compared to 25 percent in South Carolina.

The religious right is also far better organized in South Carolina, and the large organizations like the Christian Coalition and National Right to Life back Bush, largely because of McCain's support for campaign-finance reform. Bush also has the support of the Republican Party establishment, Sen. Strom Thurmond and former Gov. Carroll Campbell, and they carry weight with Republican regulars. In New Hampshire, 41 percent of the Republican primary voters identified themselves as "independents," compared to only 26 percent in South Carolina.

But McCain does have some arrows in his quiver. He is actively supported by the state's most popular congressmen, Lindsay Graham and Mark Sanford. Graham is very well-liked because of the large part he played in Clinton's impeachment. He is expected to challenge Campbell for the Senate when Thurmond steps down, and he is using McCain's campaign to spread his name and message in the state. South Carolina has 400,000 veterans, whom McCain has tried to target in his campaign.

The state also has a growing number of suburban independents who work as sales agents, managers and information specialists in the new economy that is growing up around Columbia, Greenville and Charleston. These voters think like the political independents who backed McCain in New Hampshire. They value integrity, worry about the influence of special interests in Washington and are leery of the religious right. Together with veterans, they could make up a third or more of the electorate, and give McCain a chance of edging out Bush, particularly if Forbes and Keyes take votes on Bush's right. But it's a long shot, and McCain should probably be thinking of ways to keep his campaign going to California even if he loses in South Carolina.

Bush, on the other hand, has to worry not only about McCain, but about Al Gore. Gore has severe disabilities as a politician. He remains unsure of his public identity. He is now in the midst of an incarnation as a Democratic Jake LaMotta, a fighter for the people, which he conveys by using the verb "fight" or its cognates in every sentence. But Gore possesses a certain gravitas as a man and as a sitting vice president. He is fierce in debate, and has the nation's prosperity on his side. And while he has occasionally tried to out-promise Bradley among Democratic constituency groups, he has still hewed carefully to the center.

As Bradley's surge last week demonstrated, Gore is vulnerable for his role in administration campaign scandals and, more generally, for his reputation as the ultimate Washington insider. But Bush is not in a good position to exploit these weaknesses -- because of who he is, and because he has ceded the issue of political reform to McCain. Is Bush, whose campaign contributors read as a who's who of Washington's K Street, going to hold himself up as an avatar of political virtue?

Last fall, Bush looked invulnerable. He had money, boyish charm and a cryptic message of compassionate conservatism that reassured anxious voters that he was not a tool of the Republican right or the House Republican leadership. Now, only two weeks into the actual nominating battle, he still has the most money, but his charm has transmogrified into a shallow immaturity (exemplified by the frat house smirk), and his politics, evidenced in his tax cut, have become far more conservative than compassionate. If Bush doesn't reinvent himself quickly, Al Gore and the Democrats will enjoy another four years in the White House, and Bush will be stuck in Austin with his wife, twins and family dog.

By John B. Judis

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Al Gore George W. Bush John Mccain