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Giving McCain the boot?

cover image

As George W. Bush looks past New Hampshire, he feels awfully confident he's got the nod


January 31, 2000
Web posted at: 3:32 p.m. EST (2032 GMT)

When John McCain is looking for luck--taking the stage for a debate or bracing himself for Tuesday's must-win G.O.P. primary vote in New Hampshire--he likes to stuff his pockets full of talismans--the lucky compass one of his supporters gave him, the lucky pen, the lucky feather. McCain puts on his lucky shoes--L.L. Bean stompers with thick black lugs--and he's glad to see his aides wearing their lucky ties. He's as superstitious as a 10-year-old boy.

Who could blame him? Some otherworldly force must have helped McCain get this far against party favorite George W. Bush--and now McCain needs all the mojo he can muster. If he loses in New Hampshire this week, his candidacy is almost certainly dead. And even if he squeaks past Bush in the Granite State, McCain will have no time to savor his victory, because he's got to keep climbing the impossibly steep cliff that stands between him and the nomination. His next jagged ledge on the way up: the Feb. 19 primary in South Carolina, where he trails Bush by a 20-point margin, 52% to 32%, in the latest TIME/CNN poll. That's down from a 47-point gap just two months ago, but Bush and his advisers are so sure they can squash McCain in South Carolina that they're playing it safe in New Hampshire. Where McCain's events in the state last week were crowded with believers and flushed with underdog excitement, Bush's were often subdued, with a complacent and obligatory air suffusing both the candidate and his supporters. Bush gave his speech and moved on; his audiences clapped and went about their business. No one broke a sweat.

While the McCain team was living in fear of an over-the-weekend volley of Bush attack ads--the kind that past G.O.P. front runners have often used to seal victory--Bush's aides swore they had no intention of trying any rash moves that might carry the state but poison Bush's image over the long haul. After Steve Forbes' 30% showing in Iowa, some raised the possibility of Bush's being pinched between Forbes on the right and McCain in the middle. Forbes' bankroll is always a factor, but Bush isn't worried about it--few people think the publishing tycoon can repeat his Iowa performance in New Hampshire--and Bush isn't fretting about McCain either, because he's sure time is on his side.

If the only way to win New Hampshire is to go negative, a senior Bush adviser told TIME late last week, "I guess we'll lose New Hampshire. But we aren't going to lose South Carolina. And we aren't going to lose the nomination. Forbes went negative in '96, and look what it got him--the eternal scorn of his own party. Our object is to conduct a campaign that gives us the best shot at winning in November. And if that gives us a little short-term pain, then fine."

It's easy to be brave when you're sure the pain isn't going to be all that painful. And Bush last week was pleased to hear that various New Hampshire tracking polls had McCain's lead drying up as the week wore on. The same polls made McCain seem understandably rattled at times, and his aides worked hard to allay his fears. On Friday, as the candidate got back on his bus after an impromptu stop near Exeter, strategist Mike Murphy told him he'd just spoken to a pollster. "He says it's in the bag," Murphy assured him.

It wasn't in the bag, as McCain well knew. His lead had evaporated because Bush had been raising some tough (but not especially outrageous) questions about McCain's tax-cut plan; because New Hampshire races often tighten in the last week; and because McCain's hip-shooting style had finally backfired on him.

Both McCain and Bush have tried to maintain quietly pro-life positions that won't alienate moderate and independent voters, but on Wednesday, McCain tripped over his own straddle. A reporter aboard McCain's rolling political salon hit him with a tough "hypothetical": What would he do if his 15-year-old daughter were pregnant and wanted to get an abortion? He made the mistake of answering it, then flubbing it, saying first that his daughter would have the "final decision"--a suspiciously pro-choice position for a pro-life candidate--and then, in a clarification issued soon after, that it would be a "family decision." For pro-life activists, McCain's purity on the issue has been suspect since last summer, when he told the San Francisco Chronicle that he would not work to overturn Roe v. Wade. (He later rescinded the comment, or tried to.) Now there was fresh fuel on the fire, and McCain had to spend the rest of his day smothering flames from reporters and rivals such as the surging fringe candidate Alan Keyes, who sermonized on the subject during Wednesday night's G.O.P. debate. At first McCain's debate responses were flat--he answered Keyes' philosophical question with a line about his pro-life Senate votes--but later he uncorked a strong set piece that managed to leap from abortion to his war record: "I've seen enough killing in my life," he told Keyes. "I know how precious human life is. And I don't need a lecture from you."

McCain parries tough questions by hiding behind biography. Bush parries them by hiding behind campaign cliches--and when that doesn't work, he simply suspends contact with the questioners. On Jan. 20 in Iowa, the Texas Governor suffered through his own media grilling on the abortion issue, repeatedly refusing to say whether he would require his Supreme Court nominees to be pro-life and promising only to choose "strict constructionists" (a line that some moderates might misread but pro-life people see as a pledge for pro-life litmus tests). The reporters kept clamoring until Bush had had enough. Last week one of his campaign spokeswomen informed the media that the Governor wouldn't be holding any press conferences for a while. "It's not in our best interests," she said with surprising candor. "We have a message of the day, and we're going to stick to it." Read her lips: no new chances to pin Bush down. Then reporters started howling, and Bush backed down.

As soon as the New Hampshire results are tallied, the Bush message machine will move to South Carolina, where the abortion issue really cuts and the machine hopes to crush McCain. It has a good chance of doing so, even if McCain wins New Hampshire. South Carolina Republicans tend to be more establishmentarian and evangelical than their counterparts in New Hampshire (one-third describe themselves as Christian conservatives). And because of McCain's abortion waffle and campaign-finance advocacy, they regard him as highly suspect. Possibly liberal. And very likely Clintonian.

Flip-flopping of any kind is not tolerated in South Carolina, so the Bush people are using McCain's abortion contortion to help shape a message: McCain is the Clinton of the G.O.P. primary. Bush's top strategist in the state, Warren Tompkins, says McCain is "taking positions to the left in order to find a constituency, play a numbers game." He calls McCain's tax policy "more Clintonesque than Reaganesque." And of McCain's plan to use most of the surplus to reduce the national debt and shore up Social Security, he adds, "I don't believe our party, especially in South Carolina, is ready for a candidate whose plan is endorsed by Clinton-Gore." In fact, the TIME/CNN poll suggests that a majority of South Carolina Republicans--74%--agree with McCain and Clinton that the country would be better off with a smaller tax cut and a larger pool of money devoted to debt reduction and Social Security.

Even so, Bush is delighted to have surrogates push this kind of attack on his behalf. He's getting help from groups like the National Right to Life Committee, which is running radio ads in conservative South Carolina markets claiming McCain wouldn't be "a strongly pro-life President." (Americans for Tax Reform, which ran a TV commercial in New Hampshire that morphed Bill Clinton's face into McCain's, is considering running a similar spot in South Carolina.) While McCain allies in the pro-life movement point to a consistently pro-life record (he voted in favor of parental consent and the Hyde Amendment, against partial-birth abortion and funding of abortions for military personnel overseas), other pro-life leaders are on a mission to prove he's not really one of them. Says South Carolina Citizens for Life executive director Holly Gatling: "We urge pro-life people to vote for any candidate in the Republican primary except John McCain." Part of what's fueling the activists' ire is McCain's call to ban soft money and restrict third-party "issue" ads. They see it as a major threat to their clout.

McCain has tried to overcome his problems with social conservatives by going after veterans. They make up a large and active voting population, and if they don't go McCain's way, then South Carolina won't go his way. He has dispatched a veterans' encounter group led by his brother Joe McCain on a bus tour of Carolina. The men on the bus are some of the nation's most decorated war heroes, and they draw gracious, even reverent crowds, especially in conservative areas where McCain is weakest. Yet in the new TIME/CNN poll, veterans who plan to vote in the G.O.P. primary say they favor Bush over McCain, 58% to 30%. In some other polls McCain seems to be faring better among veterans, but he can't count on them to deliver the state. So he's working other avenues.

To combat the perception that McCain is too liberal, his campaign has been running a TV ad in South Carolina in which Representative Lindsey Graham (the G.O.P.'s impeachment star) characterizes him as pro-life, against Internet smut and "conservative." And yet to win, McCain needs to reel in a new kind of South Carolina Republican, the kind who lives along the seacoast and trends more libertarian than conservative. Are there enough of them? Probably not. But McCain will give it his best shot, working to take his campaign to the next level, trying to appear more presidential--to stop the wisecracking and the untethered remarks that entertain reporters but confuse some voters.

Can he do it? McCain believes he must get within 15 points of Bush in South Carolina by the time New Hampshire votes. Then, if he wins Tuesday, the bump could put him within striking distance. If there's no New Hampshire victory or bounce, he's sunk. And even if he does exceptionally well this week, South Carolina could be the impossible dream if only because its Republicans seem so enamored of George Bush--not the callow young Bush running for President but the nostalgia-tinged older Bush who already served. South Carolina gave President Bush his second highest vote percentage in 1992, so when he paid a visit to the postmodern BMW factory near the town of Greer last week, he was introduced as "our hero." Speaker after speaker hammered Clinton for moral and ethical depredations, the crowd cheered wildly, and Bush took the stage grinning. "We have been put through a terrible, slimy ordeal," he said. The crowd went wild again. There was, the former President implied, one way to right these wrongs. In the battle of the surrogates, Joe McCain can't compete against George Bush. And to fare any better in the battle of the candidates, John McCain will need all the talismans--lucky compasses, feathers, shoes, whatever--he can find. --Reported by James Carney and John F. Dickerson/New Hampshire and John Cloud/South Carolina



ON MEET THE PRESS LAST NOVEMBER: "I understand there's going to be abortions... I hope they're rare... I want to tell you something, though: the country is not ready for a constitutional amendment. There is no chance, at this moment, that there'd be a two-thirds vote out of the House and the Senate."

IN IOWA TWO WEEKS AGO: Bush says the Roe v. Wade decision "was a reach" that overstepped constitutional bounds. Two day later, he adds, "I think that the Republican Party ought to keep its pro-life plank the way it's written now." It calls for a constitutional amendment banning abortion even in cases of rape and incest.

IN LAST WEEK'S DEBATE IN NEW HAMPSHIRE: "Our party must not abandon our pro-life position, but we must welcome people from different persuasions into our party--or different points of view into our party."


TO THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE LAST AUGUST: "I'd love to see a point where [Roe v. Wade] is irrelevant and could be repealed because abortion is no longer necessary. But certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade, which would then force x number of women in America to [undergo] illegal and dangerous operations."

IN SOUTH CAROLINA TWO WEEKS AGO: McCain calls the Roe v. Wade decision "overreaching" and "flawed" but says laws should make exceptions for rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother.

IN NEW HAMPSHIRE LAST WEEK: Asked if his teenage daughter became pregnant, would he tell her she could not get an abortion, McCain says, "The final decision would be made by Meghan with our advice and counsel." He later calls reporters to say it would be a "family decision, not her decision."


Cover Date: February 7, 2000

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