In the hour before the polls closed
Saturday night, a family friend walked
into Arizona Sen. John
McCain's hotel room and asked what was
"Well, we're not gonna do so good,"
"How bad?" he was asked.
"Well, we're getting beat pretty good."
It had been hours since tracking polls
came in showing that Texas
Gov. George W. Bush had kicked McCain's
ass in the South Carolina
primary, 53 percent to 42 percent.
Alan Keyes scored five percent.
Bush won here Saturday, but he won ugly,
and he won dirty. He won by
trashing McCain with a non-stop
infomercial on McCain's evil, liberal
ways. His surrogates spread lies about
McCain's voting record and his personal
life in campaign literature, on
Christian talk radio programs
and in "push poll" telephone calls.
"I think they got us with the religious
right," McCain told the
friend. "Yeah, they carried the
religious right. You know, scaring
According to McCain's pollster, Bill
McInturff, McCain won every
demographic group except for religious
conservatives, as measured by
exit polls. But when he lost the
Christian conservatives, he lost them
about 40 points. And in South Carolina,
where this group
accounts for about 35 percent of the GOP
primary electorate, that
gulf was unbridgable.
Many observers were blaming Saturday
night's ass-stomping on McCain's
one negative ad against Bush -- in which
he unfavorably compared the
Texas governor's truthfulness to that of
a certain other White House
"He committed the single worst error a
could make," says GOP pollster Frank
Luntz, who doesn't work for
either candidate. "He attacked an
opponent's character unfairly and
groundlessly. And that was the beginning
of Bush's effective
According to McInturff, however, it
wasn't McCain's one negative ad, but
Bush's relentless negative campaign that
made the difference. "In the
polls we did, it was very clear that
(Bush's voters) had heard that
John was pro-choice, that he wouldn't
overturn Roe v. Wade, all that
stuff about his personal life. At the
end there, they were talking
about the Keating Five (savings and loan
scandal)." There were ugly e-mails,
disgusting talk-radio chatter, phone
banks and lies.
"I'm proud of what we did," McCain told
a supporter on his way out of
his room to an auditorium at the Embassy
Suites and Convention Center.
Last week, McCain told his campaign that
he wouldn't engage in
negative advertising or campaigning
Indeed, on his campaign bus, the
"Straight Talk Express," reporters
would beg McCain to say something --
anything -- critical about Bush.
Such as how Bush touts a Texas patients'
bill of rights that he
vetoed. Or how he cozied up to Bob
Jones University, where interracial
dating is banned and
anti-Catholic dogma is celebrated. Or
about Bush's campaign tactics. McCain
demurred every time, even when the
opposition went after his wife, Cindy's,
drug addiction, the messy end to his
first marriage or alleged
children born out of wedlock. Even when
Bush refused to condemn such
attacks, McCain held his fire.
"This is a campaign that has made my
four boys proud," said Rep. Mark
Sanford (R-S.C.), introducing McCain.
Sanford followed McCain around the
state with a duckling-line of his
Huckleberry Finn look-alike sons,
Marshall, Landon, "Bo-Bo" and Blake.
In his concession speech, McCain
indicated that the fight was
not yet over. As he was introduced to
the strains of the theme from "Star
Wars," the man who loves to compare
himself to Luke Skywalker and his
opponents to the inhabitants of the
Death Star promised that he
wouldn't give in to the Dark Side.
"I will not take the low road to the
highest office in the land,"
McCain said. "I want the presidency in
the best way, not the worst
way. The American people deserve to be
treated with respect by those
who seek to lead the nation, and I
promise you, you will have my
respect until my last day on this Earth.
... I will never dishonor the
nation I love or myself by letting
ambition overcome principle.
"That speech is the nicest 'fuck you'
I've ever heard," one member of
the McCain camp observed.
McCain made it clear that he didn't
intend to let America forget the
heinous campaign Bush waged here after
he decided that "compassionate
conservatism" wasn't going to cut it in
the state that begat Sen.
Strom Thurmond and hatchet-man Lee
"My friends, I say to you I am a uniter,
not a divider," McCain said,
stealing a line from the "old" Bush,
before New Hampshire."I don't just say
it, I live it. ... As the campaign moves
forward, a clear choice will be offered.
A choice between my optimistic and
welcoming conservatism, and the negative
message of fear."
McCain implied that the "new" Bush --
wrapped in the Confederate flag
with the ghost of Bob Jones as his
running mate -- wasn't just an ugly
winner, but a general-election loser. He
suggested that Bush's campaign was
marked by "defeatist tactics of
exclusions ... cherished by those who
would shut the doors to our party and
surrender America's future to
(Democratic) Speaker (Dick) Gephardt and
President Al Gore."
McCain also took a swipe at the other
new Bush, the one who last week
gave himself a makeover by pretending to
be his opponent, calling
himself a "Reformer with
McCain called this "an empty slogan of
reform" as opposed to his
"record of reform."
Earlier in the day, a bunch of McCain
staffers drowned their sorrows with some
thirsty journalists at the Embassy
Suites bar. Even
those reporters with no real fondness
for McCain shook their head over
the tactics used by the Texas governor,
who was already winning by a wide margin
early-afternoon exit polls. Many
reporters discussed how the pretense
of impartiality would lead many members
of the media to cover the
results as if McCain and Bush had both
gone equally negative, and as
if Bush had found his voice instead of
having decided to make Willie
Horton seem like a fond memory.
At 5:15 p.m., McCain political director
"Sunny" John Weaver came down to the bar
point to the silver lining in his
candidate's dark, cloudy day.
"We will never again be in a situation
where we get outspent 3 or 4
to 1," Weaver said, referring to his
cap issues in South Carolina; Bush faced
no such constraints. Weaver estimated
that Bush has spent at least
$50 million of his $70 million war
chest, and, therefore, no longer holds a
commanding lead in the money game.
"Are you going to go negative?" Weaver
"We will set the record straight,"
With all the Reagan Democrats in
Michigan -- and so many of them
Catholic -- would McCain point out how
chummy Bush was with Bob
Jones University academics? Weaver said
But how would he do it with only a few
days until the primary?
"Well, there's Mass tomorrow," he joked.
At 6:10 p.m., McCain was relaxing with
his family in his hotel room.
McCain's kids fidgeted and bickered
while myriad shutterbugs snapped
"We're trying to act like the Partridge
Family," joked Jack, 13.
"Yeah, Mom, where's our bus?" said
Meghan, 15. "The 'Straight Talk
Express' is like the Partridge Family
McCain's chief of staff, Mark Salter,
walked in with his draft of the
concession speech; his boss and the top
staff retired into the
bedroom to prepare.
Friends started spilling into the room
-- Tennessee Sen. Fred
Thompson, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel,
South Carolina Rep. Lindsey
McCain media guru Mike Murphy started
doing interviews via his cell
phone. "Michigan has to choose between
real reform and the phony
slogans of reform," he said. "The Bush
people chose to take the low
road to the high country."
"One of the great spinners," observed a
solemn McCain. Reminding
reporters that Murphy had been laying
odds on a victory, McCain said,
"too bad people weren't taking Murphy's
At around 7:30 p.m., he phoned up Bush.
"Congratulations," he said. "See
you in Arizona and Michigan."
"The press is here," Bush said on the
other line. "Can I tell them
that this is a gracious call?"
"Sure, goodbye," said McCain. He
couldn't get off the phone fast enough.