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McCain's Moment

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The G.O.P. party crasher upset the plans for a Bush coronation. Can he sustain his amazing surge once the Empire strikes back?

By Nancy Gibbs, with James Carney, John F. Dickerson and Michael Duffy

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

If you are a rebel who draws strength from fighting for a lost cause, it can take a little time to get used to the idea of a glorious victory.

And if you are a prince who carries his own pillow as a defense against cheap hotel linen and an army of retainers as a defense against anyone who might try to storm the castle, it can take a little time to get used to being tossed into the moat.

So both John McCain and George W. Bush have some adjustments to make, as the prince and the pauper change clothes. McCain wouldn't allow himself a smile in his New Hampshire hotel suite on primary day, sitting tightly through the afternoon briefing with his aides, looking as if he'd been stapled to the chair. Campaign chairman Rick Davis knew what was on everyone's mind: not that McCain might lose the election but that he might win. "Tomorrow will be different when you wake up," said Davis. "You will be scrutinized like a President."

It was Mark Salter, the writer who is nearly as close to the candidate as any of McCain's children, who delivered the good news that the Arizona Senator might be not just winning but winning huge--men and women, young and old, wild-eyed libertarian independents and bluenosed conservative Republicans.

"This could have implications," McCain deadpanned.

"Yes," responded Salter. "Like you could be President."

Bush was in a hotel room too, a couple of towns away, surrounded by aides and exit polls and excuses. He reassured his tiny inner circle that no heads would roll, but he wanted some answers: "What the hell happened?" He was stunned by the size of his loss--and furious that his team not only had failed to prevent it but had failed even to predict it. As she thought about it the next morning, communications chief Karen Hughes admitted she should have known something was wrong when she heard there were more out-of-state volunteers in the Bush New Hampshire operation than in-state volunteers. "I should have trusted my instincts," she said.

New Hampshire has always been useful less for picking winners--ask almost-Presidents Buchanan, Tsongas and Hart--than for chastening losers, stripping them bare, exposing the phonies, humbling the pundits, rewarding the pirates and generally leaving the impression that the voters might actually have some role to play in deciding who gets to be President. Even so, no one was prepared for what happened to American politics last week.

A man almost no Republican in Washington likes, John McCain, suddenly stood a chance to grab the party's nomination from the well-liked, well-named Governor of Texas. The 18-point New Hampshire crevasse had swallowed up the party that had been sliding along blithely since the failure of the Contract with America, the fall of the House of Gingrich and the nightmare of impeachment. Outside the bubbles of Washington and Austin, the true threat that McCain posed to Bush was abundantly clear. One runs on candor and fumes; the other hides in the motorcade. One takes a punch and looks stronger; the other throws a punch and looks weaker. One seems to delight in crashing the party; the other drapes the Republican establishment around his neck like a mink.

But more basically, McCain has managed to dig into the rich and unsettled lobe of the American psyche that, in the shadow of impeachment and in the arms of prosperity, wants nothing more from politics than for something good to happen. Some have called it a tide, but it's almost an ache, not so much about anything specific as about everything in general. When the voters finally spoke last week, they all but said they want the national conversation to be civil and square, not empty or jaded, and they want a leader who will explain what he wants to do and level with them when he gets it wrong.

This was the campaign Bush set out to run, with that talk of restoring the dignity of the office--and McCain is beating him at his own game. "People want to elect a statue," observes Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, a devout Bush backer. "They want a hero, an unblemished and unvarnished guy in the White House. They don't want to revisit the agony of the past eight years. Bush has to show his character is unvarnished and unblemished." But he's going to have to get past McCain to do it.

"Fine mess you've gotten me into, Weaver," snapped McCain in jest to the 40-year-old political director who first went to McCain in February 1997 to persuade him to run. As word of McCain's rout spread, family members drifted into his suite; children ran between the sofas and chairs, grazing the tables, spilling their Shirley Temples. McCain's daughter Sidney spun youngest son Jimmy as if they were doing the lindy hop. When the networks finally called the race, Cindy's hands flew to her mouth, and her eyes filled; the aides let out a cheer. McCain hugged his wife tightly but did not smile. This was going to take some getting used to.

By the time McCain heard the official results, he had been practicing his acceptance speech off and on for three hours. "Slow, slow, slow," he said to himself as he paced in his suite, as if he were preparing to deliver a eulogy rather than frame the meaning of this moment. This was not a time for whooping or wisecracks; a lot of the country was going to be seeing him for the first time, and he needed to look like a Man Who Could Be President. "The only other speech that will be more important will be his acceptance speech at the convention," said his California coordinator, Ken Khachigian, who was traveling with the campaign through New Hampshire and South Carolina.

The goal was to take the reform message that had played so well in the boutique politics of New Hampshire and ramp it up into a national crusade. Reform had to mean more than McCain's trademark campaign-finance agenda; now it would mean a new kind of party, a new kind of politics with a new kind of leader. "They said there wasn't room for reform in the Republican Party," said McCain, resurrecting a line from his announcement speech. "Well, we've made room."

Well, maybe. By morning, the money was flooding in over the Internet--nearly a million dollars by the next night--and 12,000 people signed up to volunteer all over the country. Donations were coming in at such a furious pace that the campaign had to find a second server to handle the overflow. Israeli and Japanese television were on lines two and three. "My folks and supporters have never been as well treated as they have in the past 24 hours," joked McCain. "People have found our phone numbers that have been lost for years." Even Republican Party chief Jim Nicholson, long an outspoken critic of McCain's crusade to ban soft money, called with congratulations.

To the Republican barons who say McCain is out to destroy the G.O.P., he replies that he intends to save it. If Bush is campaigning as the champion of the status quo sentries of Washington, McCain is trying to turn them all out in the street and build a whole new bigger house, just as Bill Clinton did for the Democrats eight years ago. Which just raises the question: Is this for real, or is this a Jesse Ventura moment, all fun and feathers and wild surprise but not the kind of earthquake that redraws the continents?

For the moment, at least, it's both, as was clear when McCain climbed back onto his plane and headed down to South Carolina, where he was met at 3 a.m. in an airport hangar by hundreds of college kids and the earsplitting techno sounds of Fat Boy Slim. Bomba dada boomba ba went the music. It nearly parted your hair. Signs were waved and bodies were hopping on the concrete floor. It was as if this father of seven, who spent 5 1/2 years in a prison camp during a war that was over before most of the revelers were born, were on the cover of Rolling Stone. "He is the last hero of American politics," said Brandon Goeringer, 22, who drove in early from Greenville to get a good spot near the stage. "I don't agree with all of his policies, on abortion and other stuff, but he tells the truth."

"I like his position on the military," said doe-eyed Anne Marie McNeil, 18, of the University of South Carolina. "And I like that he is paying down the debt and not spending it all on Social Security." This is from someone who has never voted before? "The fact that we're all still here till 3 o'clock and we have school tomorrow should say something."

That night and over the next several days in South Carolina, as McCain's events just got bigger and bigger, the very size of the crowd was sending a message. More than a third of the online donors had never given money to a campaign before. At a town hall in Beaufort, the sign-in sheets that usually get a few signatures per event were crumpled from the compression of so many pens. The McCain team planned for 250 at a Georgetown fire station, and 1,000 turned out, climbing up to sit on fire trucks and on ladders propped against the wall and spilling into the street. "There's something a little bit magical going on," said McCain on the bus afterward, looking dazed by the crowd. "There's something happening out there."

Even before the results were in from New Hampshire, McCain was raising his game to a more professional level. The freewheeling press salons that used to take place unchaperoned by any campaign aides are now more structured. Strategist Mike Murphy sits at McCain's right hand, playing hall monitor by clarifying positions and editing possible missteps the candidate might make. Murphy is a bottomless pit of tall tales and campaign spin who can spell the candidate from having to provide round-the-clock sound bites and chatter.

Lines are discussed in afternoon debriefing sessions and then incorporated into the evening events. "A click more on Clinton," says Murphy in South Carolina, after a day's worth of events in which McCain has already turned up his bashing of the Administration. As the expected attacks come from Bush, aides warn McCain not to bite. "Let us handle him," says Murphy. McCain must stay presidential, above the fracas.

It took George Bush a while just to realize he'd been shot. His aides had been relentlessly smug about his prospects coming out of Iowa. He was so confident in the final strategy sessions that when New Hampshire veterans like Judd Gregg and Tom Rath urged Bush to slap McCain around a little, cut a negative ad comparing McCain to Clinton and slot it into the weekend rotation, they ran into a wall. Like his dad fending off Bob Dole in 1988, "W" was resistant, but unlike his dad, he wouldn't be budged. One reason: "W" believed he was gaining strength and didn't feel the need to get nasty. "It was a principal problem," said a big fund raiser, using the antiseptic, military language of the White House. "It's in his genes. They had to beg his old man to put up an ad 12 years ago, but 'W' didn't want to do it."

Rath thought McCain was getting a free ride. "The question is whether we should have defined him earlier," Rath recalls. "One of the reasons you couldn't introduce any contrary evidence on him was because he had become St. John. It was too late." And Bush was adamant: the whole point of their strategy--of building the unprecedented war chest and collecting all the endorsements--was to get so far out in front that there would be no need to lurch to the right or engage in intraparty fratricide. "Our object is to win a nomination that is worth having," said Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove. Go negative now, and you lose people's respect.

So instead Bush went snowmobiling. And sledding. And bowling. On the last day before the vote, his schedule broke down completely. "If your candidate's principal perception problem is that he lacks gravitas," complained a Bush donor, "why be seen playing with children?" It was less a campaign than a parade, and one that he didn't always seem to be enjoying much. Aides whispered that he was homesick. He hadn't engaged with the voters, hadn't settled into the lumpy sofas in their living rooms with a cup of watery coffee or stood in their meeting halls patiently listening to their concerns and answering their questions. Emily Mead, who worked in the Bush White House before returning to New Hampshire to run a small policy think tank, saw it coming. She'd even sent a warning note to Barbara Bush, who wrote back that she would pass it on. "Three months went by, and he was hardly here at all," said Mead. "You can't run a campaign like that and expect to win."

He left the impression that maybe this was the hardest thing he had ever done--and he still was taking weekends off. Even as McCain bounced along the back roads clearly having a blast, breaking rules, insulting voters and reporters and staff members with glee, Bush was doing half the work with twice the effort. Maybe this wasn't exactly what he signed on for, when all those delegations were flying down to Austin and begging him to be the savior of the party. Now he had to do the begging, explain why someone who brags that he never wanted to be President actually deserves to be.

To win over the coddled voters of New Hampshire, it was not enough to ride into town whistling Hail to the Chief, followed by an entourage that included nearly as many clean-cut men and women talking into their sleeves as you'd expect to see when the real President came to town. There were rope lines and security sweeps and hard-bodied guys with sunglasses and bulges from the holsters under their suit coats who kept the crowds at bay and glared at anyone who looked like a trouble-maker. Bush would shake hands and sign autographs endlessly after one of his speeches, but he wouldn't engage in any kind of serious talk. "How ya' doin?" and "Thanks for your support!" and "I appreciate it!" sufficed for most encounters.

Bush even suffered from the beauty of his speeches; even when they didn't say much, they said it well--so well that the words seemed not his own. Especially when his genetic estrangement from the language poked through the script. Bush liked to joke that anyone in the audience who planned on voting for one of what he called his "erstwhile opponents" should refrain from voting more than once. It took weeks before Bush figured out that he didn't mean to say "erstwhile" but "worthwhile." Then there were the "tacular weapons" and the worry that single moms have about "putting food on their family."

To the extent that either of the two contenders had a message, McCain's was working better. Bush took it as gospel that He Who Promises the Bigger Tax Cut Wins. His $483 billion plan was supposed to trump the cautious McCain, who talked more about paying down the debt than paying off the voters. But he hadn't bargained on pinch-fisted Yankees like the man at the Nashua Chamber of Commerce breakfast who stood up and punctured the theory. "I'm tired of all this tax-cut nonsense," the questioner told the Governor. "Can we stop it, please?" To which Bush replied, "I don't believe it's nonsense. I'm not gonna drop my plan. If the heat gets on, I'm gonna keep to it. If you like it, I'm gonna take it to Congress. If you don't like it, you can send me home to Texas."

Bush likes to say that kind of thing. "I don't really care what the polls say; I'm not a poll-driven politician," he said later the same day. "If people don't agree, that's all right. We'll go fishin' in Texas." But what once sounded charmingly normal--I can take this or leave this--was starting to sound arrogant. When he appeared Saturday afternoon in Milford with brothers and sister and parents in tow, at an event in, of all perfect places, an indoor tennis club, wearing a Texas Rangers jacket with an imperial gold star on the chest like the kind Presidents wear on Air Force One, it had all the trappings of a coronation.

I feel something in the air," he said, not taking the time to identify exactly what. In maybe two minutes of halting remarks, his parents referred to "W" three times as their "boy"--"This boy, this son of ours, is not going to let you down," said the father. There was a hug, a tear in the son's eye, but "W" said little besides "Work hard; call your friends." Then he exited stage left. Many were turned away, and others who made it in were stunned by the brevity and vacancy of the whole thing. "That was really bad," said a longtime Bush family aide, leaving the event.

So, suddenly, the waltz to the nomination had become a rumble, not with an unelectable nuisance like Steve Forbes but with an unpredictable and utterly viable Republican named John McCain. In public, Bush remained gracious, and sanguine. "I understand this is a long process," he said as he flew south from the snows. "I've seen presidential campaigns; I've seen the good moments of them, and I've seen the bad moments. And Senator McCain is having a good moment." And now it was up to Bush to make sure McCain had a few bad ones.

"He's the Washington, D.C., person. I've got to do a better job of defining that," mused Bush, trying to figure out where he went wrong. "He's the man who's the head of the committees. He's the person that interests come and, ya know, make their claim in his committees. So there's a lot of things I need to do to make it clear to people there are differences." But even in the valley of the shadow of death, Bush was talking strategy, not message. He was telling the world that he needed to define his opponent and to show the contrast. So much for moving into substance and staying optimistic. It was reminiscent of his father declaring in New Hampshire in 1992, "Message: I care."

It didn't help that all around him his army was in a panic. The party faithful lost their nerve in reliable degree and predictable order. Breathing most heavily were the money guys, the ones with a herd mentality and the deepest, longest commitment to Bush. They had bought Bush shares early, like a hot Internet IPO. They'd bet heavily on a brand name, even though there was no guarantee of revenues or income; they had imagined years of dividends in the form of jobs, favors and paybacks and now were looking at an ugly balance sheet.

The nervous Cassandras of the House fell in line behind them, for many had signed up with Bush right behind their benefactors. The Hill guys, all facing election this fall, had been watching Bush, had noticed his promise but had not missed the inexperience either. At a retreat last week of about 150 House Republicans in snowy Farmington, Pa., a bunch of Bush partisans were sitting around at breakfast, choking on the poll numbers out of South Carolina showing McCain dead even with Bush after running 20 points behind a week ago. "That bump," gulped one retreater, "is just so big." So big, in fact, that they agreed that someone had to put in a call to Camp McCain, put out a feeler, before the line got too long and the bandwagon grew too full. So they nominated one member to reach out to the McCain HQ. Sure enough, the call was made right after breakfast. "If we're going to keep control of the House," one of them said later, "maybe the McCain message has the best chance."

For their part, the Republican Governors were generally holding fast for Bush. It helps that they have nowhere else to go; but they had been bracing for this anyway. For several weeks top Republicans, including Michigan's John Engler, had been quietly complaining that the Bush campaign has been too secretive, too insular, too resistant to taking outside advice. Bush himself had expressed impatience with the way the Iron Triangle of Hughes, Rove and campaign manager Joe Allbaugh had limited access of ideas and people but never took any step to open things up. "This is a colossal f___up," said a Bush adviser. Said another: "By any measure, the campaign failed." "It's gone from 1 in 10 to 2 in 10," said a longtime pioneer. "But if McCain wins South Carolina, anything can happen."

Which is why Bush's top aides and his South Carolina allies were huddled in the Greenville Grand Hyatt by Wednesday afternoon, trying to figure out how to cut McCain fast and deep. Forget what they'd said about winning respect as well as votes; the loss up North was so bad that no one thought Bush could win South Carolina on the strength of his positive message alone. As a participant put it later, this was the moment the Bush campaign "decided to take the gloves off."

Hughes argued that they needed to hijack McCain's message for themselves. "Governor Bush is a reformer," she said. "I don't think we've articulated that very well." The South Carolina team--which includes Lieutenant Governor Bob Peeler, former Governor David Beasley and top G.O.P. operative Warren Tompkins--was less concerned about redefining Bush as a reformer than about turning McCain into a liberal or, as one of them put it, "worse than a Democrat." "McCain's not an outsider," said one. "He's an insider. When I hear this populist stuff, it makes me wanna throw up."

At some point the discussion turned to who could be counted on to fire which volleys. Several outside groups, including the National Right to Life Committee, Americans for Tax Reform and the tobacco lobby were mentioned. "Right to Life will do radio, ATR will do TV ads," said one of Bush's South Carolina advisers. "ATR will come down with whatever we need." No one in the meeting suggested that the campaign was or should be coordinating with these outside groups. Coordination is illegal, but it is also in the eye of the beholder, and the discussion revolved around the idea that these third-party ad campaigns would benefit Bush's effort.

"We have to drive his negatives up," said one of the participants. Said another: "On the flag, on taxes and on campaign finance, we don't know where the real McCain is. 'Who's the real McCain?' We have to prosecute that. We gotta hit him hard." They tested some new tag lines, designed to make clear that the G.O.P. was still a club worth belonging to. "He's not one of us" was one proposal, and "He doesn't share our conservative values" and "He's outside the mainstream." Someone even proposed "Out of touch" as a possibility, which makes one wonder which campaign it was that just lost a primary by 19 points and never saw it coming.

The next morning an anti-McCain ad by a group called the National Smokers Alliance was on the air, and by week's end Bush had launched an ad in South Carolina of the kind he had refused to air in New Hampshire. It is the first by either candidate to mention the other by name. "John McCain's ad about Governor Bush's tax plan isn't true, and McCain knows it," the voice-over says. "On taxes, McCain echoes Washington Democrats, when we need a conservative leader to challenge them: Governor Bush. Proven. Tested. And ready to lead America." On the trail, Bush was even sharper, blasting McCain's "Washington double-talk" for casting himself as a reformer while flying on corporate jets and planning a Washington fund raiser this week to schmooze with the lobbyists he vilifies on the trail.

Bush is in a nest of tough boxes now, and everyone could see how they fit inside one another. He is trying to run a newly ideological campaign against a guy who's nonideological; he's complaining about being usurped by a fake who is riding a public wave of reform; he has gone negative against a candidate who seems to fear nothing but who owes his success so far to a happy willingness to confess everything. Finally, Bush is relying on the party's right wing to save him from a candidate from the radical center. If there is one state where this might work, it is South Carolina, where a third of the voters describe themselves as religious conservatives--compared with about 1 in 7 in New Hampshire.

But South Carolina also has an open primary: Democrats and independents can vote too, and Bush's newly starched message may not work well on the Myrtle Beach transplants and Charleston sophisticates. Hours after McCain held his political rave of bright-eyed college converts, Bush was appearing at Bob Jones University--a school famous for banning interracial dating--where he told the students, whose attendance was required, that he was a conservative. He said it six times in less than a minute. When he needed a heavyweight to testify to his readiness to be President, he turned to Dan Quayle. And as he groped around for an issue to bludgeon McCain with, he seized on what might be the strangest possible choice--the charge that McCain, the war hero who never fails to pay homage to the Greatest Generation in his speeches, was somehow weak on veterans' issues.

Sitting in his hotel room at the Courtyard Marriott in Myrtle Beach, McCain loosened his tie and propped his feet up on the coffee table. "Attacking me on veterans?" he said in wonder. "Don't worry about that," said Weaver, the political director. "He's going to try to trick you into responding." McCain nodded. "We'll handle him,'" said Murphy, the strategist. "Let him be flapping around. Focus on being presidential." That's still a huge assignment for John McCain. He began his race well over a year ago, but his transformation into a front runner is just beginning. South Carolina has two weeks to decide how long that journey will last.




The license plates on her SUV read MS BUD, but the immaculately appointed Cindy McCain doesn't exactly look like a Bud girl. The daughter of one of Arizona's leading Anheuser-Busch distributors, McCain is usually in Phoenix managing the family home and the couple's four children, but for the past several weeks she has jostled around with her husband's touring-bus jamboree over the roads of New Hampshire and South Carolina. Though initially reluctant about her husband's run, the former medical missionary has recently even campaigned on her own. But she never loses contact with home, and she keeps tabs on her children's television and computer time when they are not with her. Using a hardcover-size laptop, she sends them videos of the campaign via wireless modem. During the long bus rides, her cell phone chirps with teacher updates and regular check-ins from the kids. Homework is often faxed to the hotels for Mom's review at the end of the day. Of her husband, who is 18 years older, she says, "The best part is that I didn't have to raise him."


"The funniest man in politics" is how John McCain describes the 37-year-old political strategist he hired to shape the campaign's battle plan. And, sure enough, Mike Murphy has taken lately to imitating the Australian mannerisms of a traveling tabloid reporter and re-enacting imaginary chaos in the Bush camp. Most of Murphy's jokes are drawn directly from what's around him, which is why McCain likes to sit nearby and feed off his energy. When McCain tires of bantering with reporters, Murphy picks up where he leaves off. He tells tales of foreign clients targeted by gangsters and of outsmarting security at a debate by faking an asthma attack. Born in Detroit to lifelong Democrats, he has a record of 18 winning G.O.P. Senate and Governor races, including one for Bush's brother Jeb, Governor of Florida. But he also managed the less lucky campaign of former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander in 1996. In the McCain campaign, Murphy was a key force in persuading the candidate to skip Iowa and embark on the once ridiculed New Hampshire domino strategy.


Cover Date: February 14, 2000

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