McCAIN: 1 DOWN, 2... MAYBE 3... TO GO
Bush to start kicking butt... taking names
Wednesday, February 2, 2000
By RICHARD E. BERG-ANDERSSON
"The Green Papers" Staff
In what has to be one of the biggest victories in a New Hampshire primary (and one of the best justifications for what had been considered- by many political observers- to have been a risky, if not downright "oddball", political strategy), Senator John McCain of Arizona trounced Texas Governor and self-proclaimed front-runner George W. Bush by a more than 15 percent margin in the voting on Tuesday 1 February. Now, of course, the Arizona Senator has to do it all over again: as he did with Iowa, he is skipping a relatively minor GOP primary in Delaware on Tuesday 8 February to concentrate on a much-needed victory in South Carolina's now even more important contest on Saturday 19 February. McCain needs a repeat of what happened in New Hampshire in South Carolina (followed by a clear victory the following Tuesday [22 February] in his own home state of Arizona and a good showing that same night in Michigan [a tough state for one challenging the Republican establishment elite which has fallen in line behind the Texan, as Michigan's GOP has many of the earmarks of the old-fashioned machine-type politics which McCain will then encounter in many subsequent states, such as the New York which is trying to restrict McCain's ballot access to its 7 March primary]) in order to be seen as a viable alternative to Bush for the Republican presidential nomination. John McCain, to be sure, certainly had one whopper of a victory- one largely unexpected by most observers (including myself)- but he is far from out of the woods!
Much has been- and will yet be- made over how, were it not for the vote of Independents in the Granite State (who went overwhelmingly for McCain, possibly at the expense of Bill Bradley perhaps just eking out a victory over Al Gore on the Democratic side), the Arizona Senator might be announcing his withdrawal from the GOP presidential sweepstakes even as I write this; but, as usual with such largely simplistic analysis in the immediate aftermath of major events, the forest is here not seen for the trees and, as a "big picture"-type pundit, let me take a crack at putting some of this into some kind of overall perspective. First of all, if the eventual Republican presidential nominee- whoever he is- really hopes to have the best chance of defeating (and, as I have already explained in previous Commentaries, I do not expect Bill Bradley to take the Democratic nomination away from Al Gore) an incumbent Vice President from an Administration that is largely not currently in any major trouble on any important political front (the U.S. Economy, Foreign Policy- including War and Peace, Social Unrest, Scandal)- especially in an Election Year in which we don't see particularly charismatic presidential contenders and one which is not generally seen to be a "Sea Change" Election Cycle (as was 1980 or 1932: if it WERE such a "Sea Change" year, I dare say we WOULD have had some more charismatic contenders, whether that would have made them better than the current crop or no, in the mix)- he had better win among Independents, non-hard core Democrats and non-hard core Republicans that is, come next 7 November. McCain's capturing the Independent vote from Bush (as well as from Bradley: keep in mind that New Hampshire was a Modified Open Primary; Independents could vote in either primary and they chose to vote for McCain over Bradley as much as- if not more than- they chose to vote for McCain over Bush) is a clear signal that the Texas Governor has to begin thinking about how to appeal to these "middle ground" voters, else a George W. Bush nomination next August could be a Pyrrhic victory indeed.
But more important than McCain's performance among the Granite State's Independents was his performance among registered Republicans in New Hampshire; the fact is that the Arizona Senator was competitive with the Texas Governor among these core GOP voters and that this unexpected competitiveness was one of the reasons many did not see the big McCain victory in the primary coming (another reason being that observers were not sure to whom the Independent vote would go: to McCain or Bradley- the fact that they flocked to McCain suggests to me that Bill Bradley's campaign is not only in big trouble but that his trouble no longer has much to do with the four letters PLEO!). As I have already suggested in earlier Commentaries, a large chunk of rank and file Republicans are lukewarm about the man their party's leadership has already crowned as the presidential contender whose turn it is- they feel- to wear the GOP mantle come this Fall's General Election battles; one simply does not see the same type of loyalty- even enthusiasm- among hard core Republicans for Governor Bush that one sees among hard core Democrats for Vice President Gore (and this despite a fair number of rank and file Democrats being lukewarm toward Gore). Those who have defended Bill Clinton against the onslaught of slings and arrows sent towards the White House for the past seven years know that the President wants his loyal Vice President to be his successor and they have responded in kind; you simply don't see such a display on the Republican side for their front-runner. It is as if a memo were handed down from the corner office saying simply "Bush Nomination- Aug 3rd: BE THERE!" and everyone in the loop just grunts- maybe grumbles a bit- before posting it on the walls of their cubicles as if it were simply a reminder of when the Office Christmas Party were taking place. The Texas Governor has the additional burden of trying to figure out how to appeal to Republicans who are not completely satisfied with him being the presumptive nominee.
Yet there is still plenty of time- 2 ½ weeks before South Carolina's GOP event- for the Texan to sort it all out and make a stirring, perhaps even inspirational, comeback (in effect doing in the Palmetto State what Bill Clinton did even with a second-place finish in New Hampshire eight years earlier [almost to the day!]- becoming, indeed, this election's "Comeback Kid"). South Carolina is the first state to be holding a primary which is in territory favorable to the GOP in general and Governor Bush in particular; not only is there the fact that the "Solid South"- once solid for Democrats and last so solid for Jimmy Carter way back in 1976- is now largely Republican, but there is also the fact that Governor Bush's Texas is as much a Southern as a Western state (the Lone Star State, too, once flew the Confederate flag which has caused so much of the controversy now swirling about the Palmetto State). McCain has an uphill fight down there and, while the Arizonan has fudged on the issue of the Stars and Bars flapping above the State Capitol in Columbia, one has to wonder how Senator McCain truly feels about a flag which is, after all, the 19th century equivalent of the Vietcong flag the former Navy pilot was captured and tortured under in the 20th. How can all this possibly be reconciled in McCain's mind as he campaigns in a state in which many of the same people who want the banner of the long-defeated Confederacy (a flag which is, historically, a traitorous emblem to a Yankee such as myself [and a REAL Yankee at that- like Texas Governor Bush, I was born in New England: New Haven, Connecticut- not one of them "Johnny-come-lately" Yankees like those from Iowa... or California!]) still held high above their Capitol are also often seen in pickups with "I ain't Fonda Jane" bumper stickers (a reference to the estranged wife of fellow Southerner Ted Turner whom many still regard as a traitor for her infamous trip to Hanoi at the height of the Vietnam Conflict during which the Arizona Senator suffered so)?
Furthermore, there are some cold, historical facts to consider as Senator McCain savors his Granite State victory rather quickly before pushing hard in the other February GOP primary states in which he must do well. First of all, there is the fact that the old adage "No one gets elected President without winning the New Hampshire primary" has been no longer true since 1992 (from 1952- when New Hampshire switched from a purely Delegate Selection primary, used from 1916 through 1948, to a Presidential Preference primary [at first, a Loophole primary through 1976; in 1980, the Granite State began using its current Proportional primary]- through 1988, every President elected in those ten Election Cycles had been the victor in his party's New Hampshire primary; in 1992, the late Paul Tsongas won the Democratic primary in New Hampshire: we all know who won the Democratic nomination and the Presidency that year!). But when one looks at the 18 New Hampshire Democratic and Republican primaries from 1952 through 1996 in which an incumbent President was not running, more or less, unopposed in his party's Granite State event, the results are even more sobering for the New Hampshire winner: 8 of the 18 [44 percent] of these New Hampshire victors failed to go on and secure their party's nomination for President; moreover, 6 of these 8 [75 percent] were in the Challenging Party (the major party which is not the party of the current occupant of the White House), a position in which McCain's own Republican Party currently finds itself. Basically, if such historical trends be a guide, the Arizona Senator has a roughly 1-in-4 chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination based solely on his primary victory on Tuesday 1 February.
And, as I have already noted in a previous Commentary, it is only going to get that much tougher for the New Hampshire victor even after the February events: for, if McCain wins in South Carolina on 19 February and then goes on to win Arizona (and, perhaps, Michigan) on 22 February, don't expect the Republican establishment elite strongly backing Governor Bush to fold like a cheap fan. Should the Arizona Senator survive as a viable alternative to Bush through Leap Year Day (on which Virginia and Washington are scheduled to hold primaries), we have a plethora of primaries between 7 March and the following Tuesday (14 March) to shake things out: some 17 events actually allocating some 864 National Convention delegates (84 percent of what is needed to clinch the GOP presidential nomination!). One has to figure that whoever comes out of 14 March alive- assuming a Bush/McCain dogfight after the end of February- would be so close to the prize that they could almost taste it!; in addition, all but a few of these 17 are Winner-Take-All primaries in which "so close" is, indeed, "no cigar" and a number of these are in the GOP's (and Bush's) Southern bailiwick. McCain's performance in South Carolina on 19 February will, indeed, say much about his potential in early to mid-March- regardless of the outcome there.
It is also going to get a lot rougher for Senator McCain from here on out as well: the king and his court does not well like it when a "usurper" like McCain openly challenges the one they see as the rightful heir to the crown- the lords' (in this case, the lords of the GOP hierarchy) anointed- and they will react accordingly. Already there is talk among top-ranking GOP muckety-mucks that the Texas Governor has to now go after McCain hard- even personally- and... like... yesterday already!: the only question they have is one over whether Bush should do it himself in broad daylight or leave the dark-of-night spray painting on walls to surrogates so as to have the Texan appear that much more "above the fray" and, hence, more "presidential". Watch for serious mud-slinging among Republicans over the next few weeks, including veiled (and perhaps even not so veiled) references as to how McCain's Vietnam War POW experiences might have left him a less than stable individual: a portrayal of the Arizona Senator as a war hero- yes, yet still somehow unfit for the Nation's highest office and, despite his military background, not the right man to be Commander-in-Chief of our Armed Forces; the whispering campaign on this score has already been well underway anyway- it's just that now loudspeakers will be set up so that the audience can hear it more clearly, especially in the wake of McCain's Granite State win (and a BIG win at that!). The powers-that-be in the higher councils of the GOP are not at all that happy as I write this!!
All in all, if you go to a hockey game solely to watch a fight break out (preferably in the stands rather than on the ice) or watch football because you really like to see players carted off the field while strapped to a gurney or even watch the Indianapolis 500 on TV mainly because you just love the slow-motion instant replays- from different camera angles, no less!- of serious car wrecks, you'll heartily enjoy the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination now! The famous GOP "Eleventh Commandment": "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican" gets thrown out the window as of the day I write this and "Down and Dirty" now becomes the Republican motto for February... mark my words!! One can only hope that, no matter who emerges with the ultimate GOP prize at next Summer's Convention in Philly, the average Republican voter will remember the REAL "Eleventh Commandment": "God gaveth thee a brain- and thou shalt utilize the brain the Lord hath given thee". My feeling is that this coming month may show the choice of the "City of Brotherly Love" as the site of the GOP National Convention to have been singularly ironic!!!