McCain rattles his light saber

Citing Ronald Reagan and "Star Wars," the Arizona senator goes Hollywood to try to convert California's GOP faithful.

Published February 6, 2000 11:37AM (EST)

On the heels of his New Hampshire victory and just before the Gipper's 89th birthday, John McCain had a dilemma: Should he emulate Luke Skywalker or Ronald Reagan? Or could he be both?

At the California Republican Convention, where McCain gave the keynote address Saturday, the Arizona senator tried to have it both ways: He's the leader of a spunky popular insurgency that's gunning for the gold, and he's the rightful heir to Reagan's mantle.

At first, the two images seem irreconcilable: The golden-haired, scrappy underdog who took on the Death Star and the comfortable, sweater-clad, morning-in-America Gip, the man who took office at 69 amid pomp and circumstance. But the analogy works: Reagan -- the pre-presidential Reagan -- had been a scrappy upstart, too. The kid digging through the manure looking for the pony. And sweater and pomp aside, Reagan as president was a warrior, the guy who waged a war against not the Soviet Union, but the "Evil Empire." Luke Skywalker and Ronald Reagan both claimed to battle for the souls of their nations. And Reagan even started his own "Star Wars."

Anyway, the audience ate it up. Inside the convention's banquet hall, McCain invoked Reagan by quoting a 1976 Gipper line about breaking up the Washington "buddy system that runs for its own benefit." Of course, the McCain-Reagan equation as voiced by McCain extended further: Reagan attracted a wide swath of voters across party lines. So, says McCain, does he. New Hampshire proves it.

Outside, to a crush of reporters and supporters (a few of whom responded with a heartfelt "May the force be with you"), McCain said, "Remember that the establishment is against us. This is an insurgency campaign and I'm Luke Skywalker." And in McCain's "Star Wars" metaphor, he leaves little doubt who he sees as the tyrannical Death Star: the Republican Party establishment so far devoted to George W. Bush.

In California, McCain faces especially tough odds. The California primary allows voters to choose candidates across party lines. But the only votes that count toward delegates are those cast by members of a candidate's own party. And the California Republican Party doesn't let candidates split delegates; it's a winner-take-all contest. Which means that there's a chance that McCain could win the popular election and still watch Bush walk away with all 162 delegates.

When asked if he felt the primary process in California was rigged against him, McCain was mild. "I respect the state's procedure. I'm sure we'll do very well here among registered Republicans."

Supporters were less sanguine. "It's a fraud on the public," said Tim Prudhel. Prudhel and his wife, Karen, from Pollock Pines, were among a throng of flag-wielding McCain supporters. "And most people don't know that their votes basically don't count unless they vote for someone in their own party," Prudhel said.

While McCain largely ignored the delegate question, his campaign team pumped up the issue, announcing from the stage that McCain supporters who want their primary votes to garner delegates for their candidate have until Monday to re-register as Republicans. McCains team stood by the stage throughout the rally, handing out re-registration cards to anyone who strayed near -- presumably Democrats or independents or third-party voters who came to the GOP event because of McCain.

Riding the crest of last week's victory in the New Hampshire primary, the insurgent candidate took a 15-hour whirlwind tour of the Bay Area to address adoring crowds hungry for some first-tier political action.

Front-runner Bush, apparently confident that he has California in his hip pocket no matter how infrequently he shows up, sent his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, in his stead. Jeb was in and out with a 16-minute speech Friday night, stressing his brother's decency, fear of God and "true-blue conservatism."

"My brother puts his God first, and wife and family second," Jeb Bush told an appreciative crowd.

Making his way offstage and toward a plane back home, Jeb dripped sweat as he explained to reporters that his brother cared about California Republicans, but that he had just spent "three and a half weeks on the road" and needed some time in Austin to rest.

Bush has come under considerable criticism of late for failing to take campaigning as seriously as he should. His New Hampshire schedule was "curiously undemanding," the New York Times wrote. "He took midday breaks. He played in the snow for television cameras. And he gave the impression of being tired and homesick."

McCain, by contrast, was racing from the California convention to a Phoenix interview with "This Week With Sam and Cokie" to Michigan and back to South Carolina by Monday, playing it enthusiastic and seeming anything but complacent.

Nationally, the Arizona senator faces plenty of hurdles -- not least the fact that he has a significantly smaller wad of cash to throw at television ads than his well-heeled opponent. But McCain's fortunes have skyrocketed since the New Hampshire victory, where he garnered a 19-point victory over Bush; as of Saturday, he had racked up $1.8 million in donations on his Web site.

Later, pressed on whether he would drop out of the race if he failed to win California on March 7, McCain hedged. "We'll have to see where we've done elsewhere. Things will be clearer after South Carolina." The South Carolina primary is Feb. 19.

By Ashley Craddock

Ashley Craddock is a journalist living in San Francisco.

MORE FROM Ashley Craddock

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California George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.