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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

McCain hits the sweet spot

He's gaining on George W. Bush in New Hampshire. Here's why

By Eric Pooley

TIME magazine

November 8, 1999
Web posted at: 1:21 p.m. EST (1821 GMT)

Every talented politician has a sweet spot--the issues that stir his deepest feelings, trigger his best thinking and ignite his most persuasive oratory. John McCain's sweet spot may be the smallest of all the presidential contenders', but it's also the most powerful. He's like an old-fashioned persimmon-wood golf club--hit it just right, and the ball sails a mile; miss by a hair, and it squibs into the rough. Ask him what's wrong with the campaign-money game or Clinton's foreign policy, and McCain can be dazzling--puzzled and outraged but full of strong, simple ideas for cleaning up the mess. Ask him, however, about the concerns that actually drive elections--health care, education, Social Security, what he listlessly calls our "various domestic challenges"--and he can seem as lost and bored as a Sherpa in Kansas. He'll say, "We have to do a lot more" about this or "We've got to pay attention" to that, then lapse into an autopilot recitation of catchphrases: "...less government, lower taxes, less regulation, more authority to state and local officials, and do whatever I can to reduce the size of the Federal Government." It can make you wonder whether he has the breadth of interest to run the country.

But these days McCain is finding ways to make his sweet spot grow. He never misses a chance to demonstrate how his signature issue--"six- and seven-figure soft-money donations that buy access and influence"--prevents Congress from solving problems that affect people's lives. Bill Bradley makes a similar argument, but when McCain talks about it, his zeal becomes contagious--and his message begins to seem unified and encompassing. "I don't mean to sound like there is one root cause of all our problems," he told 200 voters in New Hampshire last week, "but there is a significant cause of all our problems." One presumes he meant to say "many of" our problems, but he didn't correct himself.

"Why can't Congress pass a patient's bill of rights?" he asked. "Because Democrats are gridlocked by trial lawyers who want everybody to sue everybody for everything, and Republicans are gridlocked by insurance companies and HMOs who give huge amounts of money." Soon he's rumbling through the domestic agenda like a tank. "The tax code is 44,000 pages long--why can't we reform it? Because of the grip of the special interests." He even applies his worldview to the G.O.P.'s $792 billion tax cut, which Clinton vetoed in September. "It included special tax breaks for the oil-and-gas industry that would have taken effect as soon as the President signed the bill--but the repeal of the marriage penalty [which makes couples pay more tax just because they're married] would not have kicked in until well into the next century. Do you need any better example of who rules in Washington?"

McCain's unified-field theory has room for issues ranging from voter apathy (people don't bother voting because they believe money runs the show) to abortion (organizations on both sides use the bitter fight for fund raising and don't want to find areas of compromise). He even finds a place for stubbornly local issues such as education. Move against corporate welfare, he says, and you can free up cash to help poor kids attend better schools. He suggests putting an end to $5.4 billion in sugar, ethanol and gas-and-oil subsidies and spending it on a three-year program to test school vouchers.

In New Hampshire the people who come out to see McCain know their issues and aren't looking for a showman. They find a candidate who doesn't appear artful--he stalks around like a boxer waiting for the bell, twists his wedding ring on his finger, talks a blue streak and then says, "Whoa," as if snapping out of a trance. But he can be artful. Describing his opposition to the G.O.P.'s proposed across-the-board spending cut, he says, "It takes courage to eliminate pork-barrel spending," invoking his war-hero past without mentioning it. He sorts through the sillier items tucked into the recent appropriations bills--$1 million for peanut-quality research ("Can't the peanut people do that?"), $200,000 for sunflower studies in Fargo, N.D.--then thunders about $1 billion in military-construction projects the Pentagon never asked for. "This makes me angry," he says, his voice building, "and it should make you angry." When military dedication fuses with reformer's zeal, you know McCain has found his sweet spot.

After he found it one night last week in Goffstown, N.H., a student stood up and accused him of hypocrisy: Why does he take truckloads of money from the communications industry he regulates as chairman of the Commerce Committee? People in the room couldn't hear the question until McCain said, disarmingly, "You'd better use the microphone--I think you've gotten to the hot part." The guy asked if McCain would pledge to accept no money from industries he oversees. "Absolutely not," said McCain. "I'm sorry." He had to take the money, he said, because "I'm fighting against the massive contributions and six-figure donations" flowing to George W. Bush. McCain didn't mention Bush's name--and didn't have to. His issues are perfect weapons against Bush, who personifies the money game McCain wants to clean up. Otherwise, the two candidates' positions are similar--each opposes gun control and abortion and styles himself as tolerant and fiscally austere--but McCain is playing the maverick grownup to Bush's Establishment child.

McCain is counting on that contrast to help eke out victory in New Hampshire, then South Carolina and Michigan. After that, he says, he (somehow) becomes inevitable. In other words, he needs a hole in one. Lucky for him that his old persimmon club has lately found such a nice, sweet stroke.


Cover Date: November 15, 1999

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