||Jeff Greenfield is senior analyst for CNN. He will provide weekly, Web-exclusive analysis during Election 2000.|
Jeff Greenfield: McCain's harsh words
ATLANTA (CNN) -- In 1912, ex-President Theodore Roosevelt -- blocked in his effort to wrest the Republican nomination away from President William Howard Taft -- and believing that he and his followers had been cheated at the convention, bolted his party and declared, "We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord."
Those fighting words helped him win 27 percent of the popular vote, and 88 electoral votes --- the best third-party showing of the 20th century.
In 1988, Senator Bob Dole, defeated in New Hampshire by Vice President George Bush, was asked if he had any words for Bush.
"Yeah, Dole snapped. "Tell him to quit lying about my record."
Those fighting words marked Dole as a sore loser and he lost every primary that followed.
On Saturday night, Sen. John McCain, stung by his double-digit defeat in South Carolina, gave a concession speech written by a pen dipped in acid.
"I will not dishonor the nation I love, or myself, by letting ambition overcome principle," he said.
"I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land."
"I want to win the best way, not the worst way."
"I offer an alternative," he said, "to those who would shut the doors to our party and surrender America's future to Speaker Gephardt and President Al Gore."
There was a clear choice, McCain said, between "experience vs. pretense...optimism versus a negative message of fear."
What made the speech so tough was that it was not a challenge to George W. Bush on a matter of policy; it was, instead, a frontal assault on the governor's character. What McCain was saying, in effect, was that Governor Bush was a phony; an inauthentic figure who simply did not mean what he said.
McCain appropriated Bush's favorite adjectives about himself -- "I'm a uniter... a reformer... a fighter..." and declared, "I don't just say it, I live it."
And McCain once again implied that Governor Bush was little more than a spoiled child. During Tuesday night's debate, McCain answered Bush's charge about McCain's "Washington mentality" by arguing, "it's not a Washington mentality; it's a grown-up mentality." In is concession speech, McCain talked about "acting like responsible adults", inviting us to picture Bush as a privileged party animal at Yale.
Senator McCain professed to be happy, exuberant, about his campaign; when I suggested to him on CNN's primary coverage that he had not used such angry words before his loss, he told me he "was sorry you didn't have the time or the energy to come to South Carolina" and witness his town meetings, where his message had been consistent.
A little while later, CNN correspondent John King, who had been covering McCain throughout South Carolina, said he had never heard such words from McCain before tonight, either.
They were not the words of a happy camper. They were the words of someone who believed he had been beaten in a dirty fight, by what one of his top aides labeled "a relentlessly negative campaign."
McCain's future, in large measure, will depend on whether the voters in Michigan see his words through the prism of Theodore Roosevelt -- the heroic victim of dirty pool -- or through the prism of Bob Dole -- the snappish temper tantrum of a sore loser.