McCain's morning after

Nursing a bad South Carolina hangover, McCain's campaign goes on the offensive in Michigan.

Published February 21, 2000 2:00PM (EST)

Sunday morning began in a cold parking lot outside the Hyatt Regency under a sky whited-out like a vacant stare. It was from here, plopped down in the middle of a shopping mall on the outskirts of everywhere, that John McCain began his three-day sprint for political salvation.

The race for the GOP presidential nomination has been a roller coaster, with wild swings of momentum after the past two contested primaries. Perhaps it is the byproduct of an insatiable media beast, but that seems irrelevant now. The reality is that McCain, hot as burning coal just two weeks ago, desperately needs a win here Tuesday to avoid having his campaign put on ice.

As reporters begin to circle the lobby of the hotel like sharks, waiting for the day to begin, our sleeves have been rolled back in anticipation. What would he do now? In South Carolina, George W. Bush stole the reform issue out from under McCain, painted McCain as the establishment candidate and pulled a judo move against the Arizona senator, using McCain's tarring of Bush as a Clintonesque truth-twister against him.

Using the hindsight goggles reporters love to wear, we can now see that it was that one ad, which ran for less than 24 hours in South Carolina, that may ultimately have hurt McCain's campaign most in the Palmetto State. With that ad, McCain, the Crusader of the Moral High Ground, took the bait, engaged the wildly flailing and then-injured Bush, and got smacked squarely across the jaw Saturday.

By early Sunday morning, the sharks with cell phones at their ears were eagerly tapping their feet on the tan-striped carpets in the lobby of the Hyatt, waiting to see how McCain would retaliate. He offered a preview on "Meet the Press" -- attacking Bush's conservative credentials. McCain homed in on Bush's record in Texas, where he says spending had increased dramatically since Bush took office in 1994. If Bush was going to challenge McCain's social conservatism, McCain was going to challenge Bush's economic conservatism.

The direct criticisms of Bush were taken up a notch Sunday. "I'll cut spending," McCain promised. "Under his governorship, spending has increased 36 percent in the state of Texas," said McCain, calling Bush a "big spender, non-reformer."

McCain continued that message throughout the day, blasting Bush for putting tax cuts above the protection of social security and paying down the national debt. He resurrected an old criticism, that Bush's tax plan focuses 38 percent of the cut on the wealthiest 1 percent of the population. "I don't think Bill Gates needs a tax cut," he told a crowd at Michigan State University. "But you and your parents do."

It is a nuanced attack for a candidate that needs a dramatic shift in momentum. After all, it is Bush who is proposing a larger tax cut, which has become the barometer of economic conservatism in most Republican circles. McCain's response is reminiscent of Ross Perots pitch that the ultimate conservative economic policy involves paying down the national debt, not giving tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy, as McCain has accused Bush's plan will do.

McCain saved his harshest attacks against Bush for the end of the day in the Republican bastion of Grand Rapids, saying Bush was "not a conservative and not a reformer," because of his support for the pork-filled budget bill that passed Congress and his "bogus campaign finance reform program. Its not conservative and its not even grown-up," McCain said to the roaring crowd.

McCain is leaving the most delicate attacks to his surrogates: that Bush is the progeny of the religious right wing of the party, the wing that has been blamed for many of the party's troubles throughout the 1990s. Last night, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis offered congratulations to Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed for delivering South Carolina for Bush, and noted this morning that were it not for the religious right, McCain would have won South Carolina.

But McCain did make a small adjustment in his continued appeal for independent voters, noting that cross-over voters are drawn to his "conservative, pro-life record," a recognition that McCain must cut Bush's margin among registered Republicans.

McCain is desperately searching for an opening against the reaffirmed front-runner, but there is precious little time to test a message. While McCain has vowed to fight on through March 7 regardless of the Michigan result, Davis did acknowledge that there is a do-or-die element to the newly honed McCain message, at least as far as Michigan is concerned.

"We have to make sure that voters know the real John McCain," Davis said. "And there isn't a whole lot of time to do that." That means less whining about Bush's campaign tactics in South Carolina and a focus on taking back the mantle Bush stole fair and square in South Carolina -- that of reformer. McCain even lifted a Bush sound bite Saturday night, calling himself "a uniter, not a divider."

The new message was boiled down to its essence by McCain at his first rally of the day in Livonia, where McCain was greeted by a crowd of people waving red, white and blue pompoms and sporting buttons that read: "W is for wuss."

"I'm a reformer and he's not," McCain said of Bush. "If he's a reformer then I'm an astronaut."

With that, the Republican presidential race has morphed into a police lineup. With both candidates delivering the same message, the question put to voters in Michigan and elsewhere is which one they believe.

Though "reform" is now the central issue in the GOP race, if voters ultimately nominate Bush and Gore, it would be a victory for staying the course. A Bush-Gore matchup would confirm every bit of conventional wisdom we have ever heard, and that you will hear ad nauseam on the cable news talk shows -- that in times of economic prosperity, the status quo dominates. And no duo personifies the status quo more than Bush and Gore. A Bush-Gore matchup essentially places voters' pocketbooks before their love of narrative.

There is no liberal conspiracy in the media, just a nonideological love of a good story, regardless of where it comes from. Last week, the possibilities were abundant. Today, most of us are wondering if we'll be called back to home base come Wednesday morning, to be chained once again to our desks, to write about no-fault car insurance and clean water acts, or whatever drudgery fills our everyday lives.

It might be impolitic to ask, but why can't the voters just indulge us? Who in the hell wants a race between Gore and Bush? In all likelihood, it's the American people, mildly schizophrenic in their desires, with their priorities so obviously out of whack in the eyes of a self-deceivingly "objective" reporter.
So reporters are watching closely now on the Straight Talk Express, the iconic symbol of a life less ordinary for all political spectators -- journalists and otherwise -- to see how Round 3 plays out.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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