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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

For McCain, Flak Becomes Fuel

By John F. Dickerson

TIME magazine

October 18, 1999
Web posted at: 12:47 p.m. EDT (1647 GMT)

It was a full-scale personal attack. Behind the scenes last week, congressional Republicans were zipping faxes to each other labeling Senator John McCain a hypocrite: here he was, they said, championing campaign-finance reform while taking money from those with business before the Commerce Committee he chairs. And they had the list to prove it! Software companies, cable companies, phone companies, airlines! Rivals also whispered darkly that McCain has an uncontrollable temper. Message: too loco to be President. McCain defended himself against the hypocrisy charge--"Who is corrupted by this system? All of us are corrupted," he told his colleagues--and he admitted being a member of Hotheads Anonymous. But these days, he insists, "I just keep smiling. I don't want people to think they can get a reaction out of me."

He has reason to smile. What doesn't play in Washington does in New Hampshire. Polls show that McCain's support in that state has jumped 10 points in the past month, leaving him with 21% of likely Republican primary voters, compared with 40% for George W. Bush. New Hampshire has a history of scarring front runners who lope into the state with a lead. Now that Steve Forbes and Elizabeth Dole have receded in state surveys, McCain is the only challenger who appears to have traction. He has also won endorsements from several state representatives and the beloved former Senator Warren Rudman.

It's not just his anti-Washington bravado that accounts for McCain's gain in a state of proudly ornery voters. The former Navy pilot and prisoner of war has also tried to win the ground game by visiting the state 28 times since he started running and presiding at 80 town hall meetings. What's more, he has plans to milk the success of his autobiography, which has remained on the best seller list since its release a month ago. At the end of October, sources tell TIME, McCain will launch television ads in New Hampshire that recapitulate his war story. "Courage and character" is the theme, says campaign manager Rick Davis.

In Austin, Texas, the Bush team is starting to notice. "He is the one we worry most about," says a Granite State adviser to the campaign. That used to be the position occupied by Forbes, but the multimillionaire publisher has not managed in over a year to close his nearly 20-point deficit with Bush in the key state of Iowa. The Texas Governor's campaign staff is worried that any damage Forbes may do through his planned negative ads will not help Forbes, but will turn voters to McCain. Perhaps feeling the pressure, Bush announced last week that he would participate in a December debate in New Hampshire after previously saying he would not debate at all until the new year.

The ascending McCain, whom New Hampshire-ites often compare with Democratic challenger Bill Bradley, can't yet match his party's front runner in the organization and money needed to go the distance. In the coming weeks, say campaign aides, McCain will announce organizations in Western states that they think will show he has the longevity to take his run beyond its strongholds of New Hampshire and South Carolina. Also like Bradley, McCain will have to do it without his party's apparatus, which he spent so much time infuriating last week. But that "only helps him up here," says New Hampshire elder Rudman. "I wish that happened every week."

--By John F. Dickerson. With reporting by James Carney/Washington


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: October 25, 1999

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