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McCain nears decision on Iowa strategy

By Randy Lilleston/AllPolitics

August 5, 1999
Web posted at: 2:07 p.m. EDT (1807 GMT)

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, August 5) -- Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the only major Republican presidential candidate not participating in next week's Iowa GOP straw poll, said Thursday he will decide "in September or early October at the latest" whether to campaign actively in the state at all.

McCain has been repeatedly critical of the importance placed on next week's straw poll, considered an early indicator of Republican support. He has fashioned a campaign strategy focused on early primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Arizona.

McCain
Sen. John McCain  

In an interview with CNN editors and reporters, McCain said he was "very concerned" that failing to participate in the Iowa caucuses would hurt him in the New Hampshire primary, but that "finishing ninth" after actively campaigning in Iowa could hurt him even more.

He also criticized the enormous amount of attention being paid to the Iowa straw poll, saying most voters had not focused yet on the 2000 presidential campaign and questioning the poll's importance.

"I think it's crazy," McCain said of the attention. "In all due respect, no one's going to pay attention to it" in the longer run.

The presidential campaign organization of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the current Republican front-runner, has put substantial effort into the straw poll, although Bush himself has campaigned relatively lightly in the state in recent weeks. Other GOP candidates have criss-crossed the state recently, and many observers believe the straw poll could winnow out weaker Republican candidates.

"I just hate to see people have to leave that way, without a legitimate decision, but that's just the rules of the game," said McCain, who plans to be vacationing when the poll takes place August 14. "I don't have to play that way."

He noted that Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) tied with former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kansas), in the 1996 Iowa GOP straw poll, and that Gramm's campaign benefitted little from the showing. Gramm spent a reported $800,000 on that effort; some reports have Bush spending $3 million to $4 million on next week's straw poll.

Instead, McCain will focus on the early primary states, recently returning from a campaign swing in South Carolina, which has the largest percentage of military veterans in the nation. That offers a natural constituency for McCain, a Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war. The state's primary is scheduled for February 19, eleven days after New Hampshire's.

Other topics McCain covered in the wide-ranging interview include:

--Campaign finance reform. McCain hopes to make the issue central to the presidential campaign and to draw a clear distinction between his push for overhauling the system and Bush's record fund-raising numbers.

He said campaign finance had become an issue in the current tax cut fight on Capitol Hill, with moneyed special interests forcing changes in tax legislation. "The reason Americans are so cynical ... is that they don't think we represent them any more, and we don't," he said.

--Military readiness. He said the widely-stated Pentagon policy of having adequate forces to fight two wars at once was far from being met. "There's not a snowball's chance in Gila, Arizona that we could fight two, much less one," he said.

McCain also said American prosperity helped keep voters from focusing on large pockets of political instability overseas. Calling Russia "a basket case" and referring to problems in China and Indonesia, McCain said the U.S. military could face major new missions in the next few years.

"Every place you look in the world, you can see challenges and difficulties," he said. "It's the job of people like me to make them (voters) aware of the threats and the seriousness of the situation, and if it doesn't resonate, it doesn't resonate."

--The Democratic presidential campaign. McCain said voters he had met had been virtually silent on President Bill Clinton's affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and the impeachment proceedings that followed. However, Vice President Al Gore may be suffering for Clinton's problems, McCain said. Gore is considered the Democratic front-runner for the presidential nomination but faces a challenge from former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.

"I can only assume that the vice president is kind of carrying the president's baggage," McCain said, although he added that Bradley should get credit for running a strong campaign. However, Gore also benefits from a relative lack of public attention on the presidential campaign at this time and the problem may not last, McCain said.


CAMPAIGN 2000

New Hampshire sets February 1 primary date (9-28-99)

Arizona governor endorses Bush over McCain (9-28-99)

Bradley unveils $65 billion plan for universal health care (9-28-99)

Gore receives endorsements of Shaquille O'Neal and Bill Cosby (9-28-99)

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