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A Native Son's Secret Strategy


cover image


February 7, 2000
Web posted at: 12:54 p.m. EST (1754 GMT)

Texas Governor George W. Bush always makes reference in his stump speech to a "gap of hope." It was never quite clear what he was talking about until last week, when he fell into it somewhere between New Hampshire and South Carolina.

In defense of the Bourgeois Bubba, it ain't easy figuring out who you are while you're under a national microscope and Dad's golf buddies are wondering what you did with their $68 million. Having initially positioned himself as a centrist and then taken on water, he essentially attacked Arizona Senator John McCain for being--a centrist. At this rate of decompression, Bush will be dipping snuff and driving a pickup by week's end.

In contrast, it was a house party last week on McCain's Straight Talk Express. And if you asked the right people, you found out that as Bush and his brain trust fish for a South Carolina strategy, McCain's was in place 18 months ago, long before he'd even announced.

The story involves G.O.P. Representative Lindsey Graham, 44, a local rising star and one of the few souls who came out of Lewinsky looking better than he did going in. It was Graham, the House Judiciary Committee member and former Air Force prosecutor, who introduced McCain at rallies last week with a terrific down-home twang. And it was Graham whom McCain pointed to every time a desperate Bush tried to tar the Senator as a Clintonian liberal.

"They're going to try to tear him down," Graham said as we cruised through catfish country. "But they're going to have to go through me to do it. And I don't take kindly to Clinton comparisons."

It was July 1998 when Graham got a call from McCain, a man he'd never met. He'd heard McCain was considering a run, but as he hoofed it over to the Senate side, he had no idea what was up.

"He said he was proud of the way I was handling myself with impeachment, and then he said he was thinking about running and building it around a new dynamic," says Graham. "Embrace reform, admit that money is a problem in Washington, and put a hero back before the public eye with a Republican name behind it."

McCain knew Bush would be flush early on because of his daddy's name, so his bargain-basement strategy was to focus on New Hampshire and South Carolina. "If I do this," McCain told Graham, "I'm gonna need a guy like you who can help me in South Carolina."

Graham was flattered but not bagged and said he'd sleep on it. He was no fan of McCain's failed effort that year to whack tobacco with a gargantuan sin tax. But he liked him well enough to lay out how to win South Carolina: go strong on the military and the restoration of dignity to the White House, hammer away at the Big Money interests in Washington and deliver the same straight message regardless of the polls, the day of the week or what part of the state you're standing in. Lie to one and you lie to all, Graham says, because cousins call cousins in South Carolina.

"He said things I'd been dying to hear from a leader," says Graham, who, like McCain, knew the G.O.P. was fat, slow and confused, kind of like Rush Limbaugh in his prime. "Nontraditional Republican things like campaign-finance reform, paying down the debt, Social Security restructuring, not going the way of huge tax cuts."

Two weeks later, Graham went back to McCain with a question. Was he in the race through South Carolina, no matter what? McCain guaranteed it. "Then sign me up," Graham said. "I may not win," McCain told him, "but I will never let you down."

Eighteen months later, Mutt and Jeff are like old pals on the trail. Some of the folks who mob them at rallies seem just as worked up about meeting Graham, who's been a local rock star since flogging the action-pants President during the House impeachment hearings. And if McCain can just break even in Graham's more conservative northwest part of South Carolina, he figures he'll take the state.

At a Seabrook Island rally on Thursday, a vet introduced McCain as a Naval Academy grad and war hero but handed the mike to Graham first. "I only made 800 on my SATs" and couldn't get into the academy, Graham said. "The bad news for you is I went to Congress. And it gets worse. I'm one of the smarter ones up there."

Get that snuff ready, George.


Cover Date: February 14, 2000

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