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Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

Mark Shields: Most influential primary

By Mark Shield
Creators Syndicate


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WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- Today's Quiz: In determining the identity of the Democrat who will accept the party's presidential nomination at the 2004 convention in Boston next summer, what political contest -- between now and then -- will be most influential?

Will it be the Iowa precinct caucuses on Monday night, January 19, 2004, or the historic "first in the nation" presidential primary, eight days later, in New Hampshire? Or the Dixie Showdown in the South Carolina primary after that?

If history is a reliable guide, the nominee will be -- as it has been for the last quarter century -- the victor in the Money Primary, the candidate with the biggest campaign treasury on January 1 of the presidential year.

Or perhaps it will be the winner of the Ideas Primary, that candidate whose inspiring vision or creative common sense captures the voters' imagination.

Each of these competitions could be important, maybe even decisive. But I believe the Democrat with the best chance of winning his party's 2004 presidential nomination will be the presidential candidate who can win the John McCain Primary.

OK, you ask, just what is this John McCain Primary ? True, it appears on no schedule. There is no filing date. But you can be sure the McCain Primary will be held by two essential constituencies who pick presidential nominees: primary voters, especially independent voters, and those of us in the political press.

In the 2000 presidential primaries, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, ran an exhilarating campaign unprecedented in its openness, both to voters -- 114 candidate town meetings in New Hampshire, alone -- and the press. His campaign bus, "The Straight-Talk Express," featured the candidate answering on the record, with humor and candor, reporters' questions.

Yes, John McCain was an authentic hero, but as he, himself, has pointed out, astronaut-fighter pilot Sen. John Glenn was a far bigger national hero when he ran in 1984 than McCain was in 2000. The admirable biography gets you a respectful hearing from voters. But unless the candidate has a message that moves voters, the campaign fails.

The McCain reform message of attacking big political money for its selfish contortion of public policy and his patriot's summons calling fellow citizens to the nobility of public service energized voters, particularly independents who now comprise more than 40 percent of the nation's electorate.

Because underdog McCain, outgunned by George W. Bush's campaign money machine and overwhelming backing from the GOP establishment, was able to motivate independents to vote for him in GOP primaries, he -- instead of Democratic underdog Bill Bradley -- won the upset victory in New Hampshire.

Next year, the only nomination fight will almost surely be in the Democratic primaries. The Democratic candidate who can begin to match McCain's authenticity will have the best shot of enlisting independent voters to his campaign and becoming a serious White House challenger.

We in the press are a lot more influential in the presidential nominating process than we were when convention delegations and presidential nominations were largely under the control of governors, mayors and state chairmen. Party leaders used to reject or approve potential candidates for president. The political press has supplanted party leaders as the evaluators. We examine and screen would-be presidents.

It is time that we in the press admit our personal prejudices. We have a bias in favor of the candidate who is candid and against that candidate who lies. The bright candidate is usually favored over the un-bright. Honest. Most of us like candidates with a sense of humor who are fun to be around.

Access and openness are important to us and frequently lead to more positive press coverage for the candidate who is open and accessible. Most, but not all of us, tend to root for David rather than Goliath. In addition to afflicting the smug and the comfortable (a personal favorite), John McCain passed all these tests.

Voters and the press will be separately looking closely at the candidates. Who will energize independents? Who will stand up to a powerful Democratic constituency and publicly tell it what it least wants to hear? (Recall McCain's 2000 GOP heresy when he relentlessly criticized Bush's giant tax cuts). Who will charm voters with his frankness? Who will really challenge us to sacrifice for the common good?

There may be no Democratic "winner " of the McCain primary -- which would be good news for George W. Bush. But that crucial competition is now on.


Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.


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