The South rises

It may have been ugly, but it was a big victory Saturday night in South Carolina for the governor from Texas.

Published February 20, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

When chief strategist Karl Rove delivered the good news to his candidate Saturday afternoon a few hours before the polls closed, George W. Bush remained mellow.

"Great," Bush said, as recounted by Rove. "I'm going to take my power nap."

It just might have been the best sleep the Texas governor has had in the nearly three weeks since his New Hampshire nightmare, where he lost to Sen. John McCain by 19 points. Here, Bush breezed to victory Saturday, defeating John McCain by a 53 percent to 42 percent margin (Alan Keyes placed way back with 5 percent). Winning nearly all the key demographic categories, and nearly two-thirds of the vote among the Republicans who cast ballots in the open primary, Bush leaves South Carolina back in the GOP driver's seat.

Nearly 600,000 South Carolinians turned out to vote, more than doubling the state's 1996 primary count, indicating that something -- the Bush message, say supporters; his inflammatory ads, say opponents -- ignited interest in this year's race.

But in his victory speech, Bush made only a passing reference to McCain, focusing his fiery rhetoric on the incumbent administration, promising that "tonight is the beginning of the end of the Clinton/Gore era." (His Web site, however, whacked McCain for what it called an "ungracious concession speech.")

The immediate spin from the Bush camp after the victory was that its candidate had "survived a 19-day test" after New Hampshire, as spokeswoman Karen Hughes put it, and "emerged as an even stronger candidate" in the process.

Ever since New Hampshire, Bush has been in full fight mode, unleashing a brutal barrage of TV attack ads and refusing to grant McCain ground even on the issues -- government reform, veterans -- that most assumed McCain had long since locked up.

There was also a more obvious, physical change in Bush. Gone was the smirking, frat-boy demeanor he showed in the initial stage of his campaign, replaced now by an intense, pumped-up politician given to barking his message out at the crowds.

In his victory speech, Bush kept the volume high, accusing the administration of basing "decisions on polls and focus groups" while he promised to "stand on principle." He also promised to "return the highest standards of honor to the highest office in the land."

Those comments were read as bitter irony in Charleston, where McCain supporters continued alleging dirty tricks by the Bush campaign. Bush burned through money at a rate estimated at $3 million a week, filling the airwaves with a relentless barrage of ads hammering McCain. Said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.: "I think George Bush made a huge mistake here. It's the worst campaign I've ever seen. I think he mortgaged his political future here. He made a pact with some pretty bad elements."

Hagel discussed the "push polls" -- telephone smear campaigns -- alleged to have been committed by Bush supporters, and leaflets that were circulated with ugly allegations about McCain and his family. "You're going to tell me the Bush people didn't know anything about any of that?" Hagel asked. "Come on."

But the Bush camp insisted that it had run a positive campaign, and Hughes blamed any negativity on McCain. "The one ad that was most significant was launched by Senator McCain that compared George W. Bush to Bill Clinton. And that" -- in what became a mantra for the Bush campaign in the last week -- "was about the lowest blow you can make."

As support for this contention, the Bush campaign pointed to exit-poll data that showed that nearly half of the voters felt McCain had been the one engaging in negative political campaigns.

Hagel and others in the McCain campaign speculated that by so heavily cultivating the religious right, the Bush campaign has made itself vulnerable when it moves out of the South -- including tomorrow in Michigan.

"Bullshit," says Bush TV adman Mark McKinnon. "That's just not true. We've been running the same campaign in every primary, and we'll continue to. That's the [Democratic National Committee's] spin."

Also disputing that Bush raced to the right in South Carolina was Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition and now a Bush advisor. "He won because he has strong conservative values, and sure, that was part of it. But I think he won here because of his message of reform." Again, Bush exit-poll data had voters, nearly 2 to 1, identify him as the candidate of reform. In fact, Bush even split with McCain the vote from veterans.

Before the Bush campaign had even begun celebrating its win in South Carolina, it received a buzz that it was gaining ground on McCain in Michigan, where a Detroit News poll taken from Tuesday through Thursday indicated the race there is too close to call. A News poll just a week before had given McCain a nine-point lead.

Michigan voters can expect much the same treatment given those in South Carolina, as McCain promises to keep it clean, while Bush consultants say they'll stick to the same strategy of lots and lots of TV ads; presumably, negative ones. And presumably, immediately -- barely a half hour after his speech, Bush was on his way to the airport to fly to Michigan.

The end of the campaign was just fine with South Carolina's Ben Waddell, a lifelong Republican who cast his vote in Greenville on Saturday morning. "I have had an awful lot of phone calls, reminding me to vote. But actually, I hadn't thought it had been all that dirty a campaign. Just pretty much the usual.

"But I'll be happy when South Carolina gets out from under a microscope," Waddell added. "I'm ready for it to be over and for all of you to leave."

Jake Tapper contributed to this report.

By Kerry Lauerman

MORE FROM Kerry Lauerman

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George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.