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Frank Sesno: Requiem for a political spring training

Frank Sesno By Frank Sesno
CNN Washington Bureau Chief

March 9, 2000
Web posted at: 12:57 p.m. EST (1757 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

In this story:

Heroic appeal

Achilles' heels

Play ball!

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- They will be missed. Rebels with a cause.

McCain the reformer.

Bradley the idealist.

Their self-styled insurgencies were all about putting "big ideas" on the table, challenging the political "establishment," daring the "entrenched powers" not to like them, forcing voters to stop and think.

They pulled the predictable out from under the frontrunners, who for months had assumed the presidential primary season would be little more than spring training without opposition.

The predictions, of course, turned out to be wrong. George W. Bush and Al Gore found, if just for a time, that their walk through the woods had become a sprint through the minefields.

The public and the media were enthralled. The primaries had mystery, intrigue -- a sense that maybe things were not preordained. Would the insurgents survive? Could they prevail?

McCain announced Thursday he was dropping out of the race (Audio 423 K/38 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)  

Heroic appeal

Voters who often find politics distant and irrelevant were drawn into the struggle, the stories, the humanity. Here were these two challengers -- one a former prisoner of war, the other a sports idol -- running for president, each slightly larger than life.

Their stories magnified their personalities and amplified their pronouncements. Their stories made them heroes.

And we all like heroes.

That is why there was such frenzy four years ago when people thought Colin Powell might run. That is why the crowd at the Washington Wizards basketball game the other night pointed and gawked at the skybox where a fellow named Michael Jordan was sitting.

Bill Bradley and John McCain each offered a compelling, deeply personal story about determination and achievement, breakthrough and celebrity. They were underdogs and they inspired passion in their followers. The passion of revolutionaries.

Achilles' heels

Yet they were flawed as candidates -- Bradley often aloof and unresponsive, McCain often impatient and impetuous. Both suffered the perils of timing, of too little or too much. Bradley could not quite bring himself to engage his opponent; McCain could not stop himself. With one it was not enough, with the other it proved to be too much.

Bradley advisers say their lost moment was just before New Hampshire. They berated -- nearly begged -- their candidate to lean harder on Gore's connections to the ethical lapses of the Clinton-Gore years.

I was told that in the CNN-WMUR debate just before the New Hampshire primary Bradley would hit Gore over the head with his campaign fund-raising activities. Play the integrity card.

Bradley announced Thursday he was dropping out of the race (Audio 355 K/33 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)  

Lots of smart political observers thought that was the unexploded bomb in Gore's back yard. Bradley did not do it. Could not do it. When he raised the topic later -- after his defeat in New Hampshire -- it sounded like sour grapes. And it was too late.

McCain campaign aides say their train started going off the tracks when Conductor McCain invoked religion and attacked evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

McCain wanted to say, "All aboard," and intended his speech to be an inclusive invitation to join his journey. In hindsight, even some in McCain's inner circle say it came off sounding like "last stop." It proved divisive and it backfired.

GOP strategists across the spectrum say McCain violated Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment: Thou shalt not attack another Republican. Exit polls show that in Super Tuesday contests Catholics as well as members of other denominations went for Bush.

Gore and Bush are both qualified candidates with solid records -- seeking a perfectly logical promotion. They, too, have ideas and proposals and plans. They both want to convey to voters that they have "the vision thing."

But they do not seem larger than life. Not yet, anyhow.

Play ball!

The California primary attracted the most voters since 1976. Michigan's Republican primary voters nearly doubled from the last cycle. However uncomfortable for the parties' regulars, open primaries were instituted in the first place to attract more voters.

But turnout was up even in states where there were closed primaries. So, much credit goes to the nature of the races themselves.

It is a fact that a lot of people were drawn in by the sports hero and the war hero -- and by their messages of idealism and rebellion.

Heroes who proved to be politically mortal after all.

And now the media, the public, the political "establishment" will focus once more on the men with the powerhouse teams. Gore and Bush. Barring a thunderbolt, one of them will be president.

Spring training is over.

CNN Interactive: Analysis

  • More analysis by Frank Sesno

  • Bill Schneider: On style and substance, heading off toward November -- January 20, 2000

CNN Interactive: AllPolitics

  • Election 2000

Bill Bradley for President
Buchanan Reform
George W. Bush for President
Gore 2000
John McCain for President
Keyes 2000

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