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Read my knuckles

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To win big in South Carolina, Bush found his anger, battered McCain--and moved sharply to the right. Will moderates still buy his compassion pitch?

February 21, 2000
Web posted at: 4:11 p.m. EST (2111 GMT)

The crowd in Hilton Head last Wednesday morning wasn't much to brag about--roughly 250 people had shown up at a local marina to hear George W. Bush--but the candidate was pumped just the same. In the big debate the night before, he'd finally managed to get the better of John McCain. More important, Bush had unleashed the dogs of war against his rival--saturation TV and radio attacks, hundreds of thousands of telephone and direct-mail blasts, everything short of leaflets dropping from the skies above South Carolina. The dogs were tearing into McCain, raising questions about his character and dedication to the conservative cause. Bush told the crowd, in his new fire-in-the-belly style, "If you're sick and tired of the politics of cynicism, of polls and principles, come and join this campaign." His slip of the tongue about being tired of principles hinted at what happened in South Carolina: Bush believed he would be finished if he lost the state, so he did what it took to win. A country tune that played at the Hilton Head rally neatly summed up Bush's approach. Its refrain: "I'm really good at gettin' by."

Want a reformer? Bush asked his party in South Carolina. I'll be your reformer--but a safer and more predictable one than McCain. Want a fighter who can take it to Al Gore? I can play rough--look what I did to my Republican rival. I can court the radical right and come out shining brightly. I'm really good at gettin' by.

So good, in fact, that Bush did more than get by in South Carolina. He trounced McCain by 11 points overall, beating him handily among nearly all age groups, both genders and most income levels--among everyone, in fact, except veterans and new G.O.P-primary voters. South Carolina Republicans rejected McCain's message that "this party has lost its way," voting for Bush almost 3 to 1. The independents and Democrats who made up about 40% of the electorate went to McCain 2 to 1, but there weren't enough of them to keep things close. Exit polls show that a majority of voters saw Bush as the "real reformer"--an astonishing coup for the Texas Governor, who adopted McCain's mantle of reform just two weeks ago. Of those who believed McCain was the true reformer, more than a third voted for Bush anyway. For all its demographic changes in recent years, South Carolina remains wary of mavericks and loyal to the G.O.P establishment. It was the third consecutive time a Republican front runner had lost New Hampshire and regained his balance in South Carolina. The fire wall held.

Bush's slashing tactics--ferocious even by South Carolina's down-and-dirty standards--don't fully account for the size of his victory. Bush managed to drive McCain's negative ratings from 5 to 30 in a month, but he also benefited from his own more serious and improvisatory style. Gone were the photo ops of Bush bowling and snowmobiling, replaced by substantive town-hall forums that looked a lot like McCain's. What helped Bush most of all was his hard charge to the right on social issues: he boosted conservative Christian turnout to record levels and collected two-thirds of their votes. But the things he said and did to win them could cost him down the road.

The compassionate, big-tent Republicanism on which Bush campaigned for months became threatening to him when the tent started filling up with pro-McCain independents. So he called on the right wing of his party to guard the doors of the tent, warning that Democrats were conspiring to hijack the primary. The man who prides himself on being "a uniter, not a divider" won by pitting social conservatives against moderates. He kicked off his South Carolina assault at Bob Jones University, a place where interracial dating is officially prohibited. He all but told listeners on Christian radio that openly gay people would not find spots in his administration. He said he wasn't going to "tear down" his opponent, but his campaign literature told voters that "McCain says one thing but does another," and it distorted many of McCain's positions--charging, for example, that McCain wants to remove the pro-life plank from the G.O.P platform. That isn't true, and among religious conservatives, it was a napalm blast at McCain.

Those tactics helped Bush win South Carolina, but they could alienate the voters he needs in the fall if he secures the nomination. McCain hammered that message home in his unforgiving concession speech, saying Bush's tactics would give the country "Speaker Gephardt and President Gore." McCain was warning that in the eyes of many Americans, Bush has become the candidate of Bob Jones, the Confederacy, the National Rifle Association and the National Right to Life Committee. And though Bush proved in South Carolina that he can change his spots as nimbly as Bill Clinton does, he must now show that he can change them back--something that is a good deal harder to do.

Three weeks ago, when McCain began comparing himself to a Star Wars hero--"I'm Luke Skywalker trying to get out of the Death Star"--the analogy seemed overblown. But by primary day in South Carolina, it seemed more than apt.

Bush's Death Star strategy was hatched on Feb. 2, the day after he lost New Hampshire to McCain by 18 points. His top advisers met in a panic at a hotel in Greenville, S.C. Not only was Bush's air of inevitability shattered--McCain was galloping from 40 points behind in South Carolina to a dead heat--but all their presumptions about the race had proved wrong. They had spent months trying to plug the stature gap and build an image of Bush as a candidate who could unite the party--and then they were blindsided by a Republican at war with its leaders. At that meeting, Bush's team realized he had to forget his promises to run a "hopeful and optimistic and very positive" campaign--promises that had been easy to make last fall, when he seemed to be waltzing unopposed to the nomination. Bush agreed to do whatever it would take to win. And in South Carolina, "whatever it takes" has a colorful lineage.

The architect of whatever-it-takes politics, the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater, helped turn South Carolina, his home state, into the most reliably Republican place in the country. He did so on behalf of George Bush's father in 1988 by exploiting the fears of conservative whites and honing the tactics of search-and-destroy politics--black arts he apologized for in 1991 as he was dying of a brain tumor. Bush's South Carolina team, led by former Governor Carroll Campbell and his onetime chief of staff Warren Tompkins, are masters of Atwater-style politics. Bush and his chief strategist, Karl Rove, were both close to Atwater over the years. Atwater's spirit was hovering over the meeting when Bush's advisers decided it was time to "drive up McCain's negatives." Though Bush had always prided himself on being a positive candidate--even in 1994 when Governor Ann Richards of Texas was calling him "Shrub" and goading him to fight--this time he let his team go to work. "We play it different down here," one of Bush's top South Carolina advisers told Time last week. "We're not dainty, if you get my drift. We're used to playin' rough."

Bush's team devised a two-pronged strategy aimed at shoring up his image and conservative credentials while carpet-bombing McCain with attacks that portrayed the Arizonan as a hypocrite and a closet liberal. The first part of the plan would be carried out by Bush himself, who had a "wimp factor" to contend with. To allay post-New Hampshire doubts that he wasn't tough enough to go the distance, the Governor attacked McCain in a series of press conferences beginning just days after New Hampshire. Bush started out by calling McCain a Republican who took "Democrat" positions favored by "Bill Clinton and Al Gore" on issues from tax cuts to campaign-finance reform. He stepped up the assault during the next week, holding bash-of-the-day press conferences for four straight days. His barrage against McCain was always the first order of business. He began one press conference by saying, "I want to continue this discussion about saying one thing and doing another."

Each of Bush's points was meant to show McCain as a hypocrite: on public financing of campaigns; on allowing incumbents to "roll over" their campaign war chests (and never mind that Bush had done the same thing); on whether he favored tax hikes in the past. On each occasion, Bush aides would pass out, fax and e-mail memos documenting McCain's alleged hypocrisies. And surrogates--Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, Strom Thurmond, Lieutenant Governor Bob Peeler, Attorney General Charlie Condon and former Governors Campbell and David Beasley--were dispatched to deliver the message in harsher terms on TV and radio. Outside groups--the National Right to Life Committee, Americans for Tax Reform, the National Smokers Alliance--were counted upon to hammer McCain with incendiary radio and TV spots of their own.

The strategy carried risks--notably that Bush would start to seem not just tough but Visigothic. That problem was solved when McCain made his one colossal blunder of the campaign--a move Bush aides call "a gift."

The gift was a TV commercial in which the Arizona Senator looked into the camera and charged that Bush "twists the truth like Clinton." The spot went too far--in South Carolina's Republican circles, being compared to Clinton is worse than being compared to Satan himself. Putting it on the air undermined McCain's claim that he was above politics as usual and freed Bush to amplify his attack strategies while muddying the waters on the question of which candidate was hitting below the belt. Says a Bush aide: "When he truly crossed the line, that's when we could go after him. It was a huge opportunity."

For the rest of the campaign, Bush used the ad as a smoke screen to obscure his assaults on McCain. His team quickly cut an effective response ad, with a nice kicker: "Disagree with me, fine," it said, "but do not challenge my integrity." It was his best performance yet, and Bush used variations on the theme in the final debate and in his press conferences. For instance, when reporters challenged him on his failure to speak out against the racist policies of Bob Jones University, he jutted his jaw and said, "Don't you judge my heart." The Bush camp kept the spot on the air through primary day--long after McCain had taken his attack ad off the air--because it implied that McCain was still playing dirty even after he had committed himself to sending only positive messages.

Behind the smoke screen, Bush's allies on the right stepped up their assault. The National Smokers Alliance warned that "if straight talk is the issue, John McCain isn't the answer." Christian-right leader Pat Robertson threatened that "a large portion of the Republican base would walk away" if McCain was the nominee. Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the House impeachment proceedings, taped a phone message for 100,000 voters, implicitly criticizing McCain for wanting to change the G.O.P's abortion plank to include exceptions for rape and incest--exceptions Bush also supports, though Hyde didn't mention that. The National Right to Life Committee issued a mass mailing warning that McCain "voted repeatedly to use tax dollars for experiments that use body parts from aborted babies." On the front of the leaflet was a photograph of a baby with the words, "This little guy wants you to vote for George W. Bush."

Phone calls from Bush polling operations appear to have been attacks masquerading as opinion surveys--so-called push polls. These calls distorted McCain's record--exaggerating his role in the Keating Five savings and loan scandal, for example--in an attempt to push voters away from him. Though the Bush campaign claims only 300 of the calls were made in South Carolina, Bush's Michigan pollster, Fred Steeper, told Time last week that his firm had placed several thousand such calls in his state. Steeper says he has stopped making the calls.

Former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, a Bush strategist, used his firm to smother the 400,000 self-described Christian conservatives in the state with negative phone calls and mailings about McCain. ("He claims he's conservative, but he's pushed for higher taxes and waffled on protecting innocent human life.") In this blitz of mail and phone calling, Bush was portrayed as far more socially conservative than he describes himself at rallies. Asked why Bush almost never brought up his pro-life position in his appearances before South Carolina voters, a top Bush adviser said, "This is a message that needs to be narrowcasted." In other words, they didn't want moderates up North hearing what they were saying to conservatives down South.

To see how Bush's words went further to the right as he narrowcast them, consider the way he worked the issue of gay rights. In the debate last Tuesday, Bush said he had refused to meet with the Log Cabin Republicans, the G.O.P's largest gay organization, because "they had made a commitment to John McCain." When McCain said the group had not endorsed him, Bush replied, "It doesn't matter." To conservatives, though, it mattered a great deal. A few days later, a Baptist church in Kentucky began faxing a flyer to South Carolina radio stations, railing against "John McCain's fag army." (Both McCain and Bush support the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military.) The Bush campaign said it had nothing to do with the flyer. But the Governor repeated his anti-gay message during an on-air interview with a Christian radio station in Charleston, implying that he wouldn't appoint openly gay people to spots in his administration. "An openly known homosexual is somebody who probably wouldn't share my philosophy," he said.

The most corrosive material of all came from groups and individuals independent of Bush's campaign. A Bob Jones professor named Richard Hand sent out an e-mail falsely alleging that McCain had sired two children out of wedlock. A flyer distributed at McCain rallies went after Cindy McCain for her addiction to pain killers a decade ago and her admission that she stole them from a clinic where she worked. Phone-call campaigns targeted McCain's broken first marriage. And a pro-Confederate flag group called Keep It Flying, founded just last week, sent out 250,000 pieces of misleading mail about the candidate's position on the flag flying above the state capitol. Both McCain and Bush ducked the issue, but the flyer said, "Of the major candidates, only George Bush has refused to call the Confederate flag a racist symbol." In a bit of payback last Saturday, McCain's camp decided to send copies of the flyer to African-Americans throughout Michigan. "We'll see if Bush can run as a Dixiecrat in Michigan and everywhere else," says McCain political director John Weaver.

Against this deluge, McCain fought back with a positive TV ad comparing himself to Ronald Reagan. But McCain's morning-in-America spot was airing once for every six Bush commercials. McCain got some help from Gary Bauer, the Christian conservative candidate who folded his campaign after New Hampshire and endorsed McCain last week. Bauer is fighting Reed for supremacy among Christian conservatives, but last week he lost the battle. He wasn't popular enough to sway many votes. McCain's network of veterans tried to counter Bush's carpet bombing with a grass-roots ground campaign, but by Saturday morning, McCain knew in his bones that it was over.

In the hallway outside his hotel room that morning, McCain turned to his closest aide, Mark Salter. "We're going to lose this, aren't we?" McCain asked. Salter didn't have to answer. Inside the room, people started eating cold pizza from the night before, shaking their heads over reports that the state G.O.P had failed to open 21 polling places in black areas of Greenville. Later the team sat down and went over the exit polling. The candidate wanted to know about the attacks, so his ally, South Carolina Representative Lindsey Graham, ran through the list of the body blows McCain had absorbed. Cindy McCain broke into tears. "It's all right, Cindy," said McCain. "We can take it." By the time he had digested the results, McCain was smiling broadly--the mirror image of primary night in New Hampshire, when he had won so big yet couldn't manage a smile.

McCain still sees the battle that raged in South Carolina--and that this week spreads to Michigan and beyond--as a chance for an epochal party realignment, a ritual of G.O.P purification. But his party may not be ready for the purity he has in mind. As Bush and his aides see it, the party feud caused by McCain's surge is merely a minor, passing unpleasantness, not a long-term problem. And they believe the damage Bush did to his own image in South Carolina can be easily fixed. Says a senior Bush adviser: "We'll patch things up pretty quickly."

Not if McCain can help it. Despite the stinging loss, he went roaring out of South Carolina vowing that "our crusade grows stronger" and pitting "my optimistic and welcoming conservatism" against Bush's "negative message of fear." He added, "I want the presidency in the best way, not the worst way." Bush, stripped now of all his laid-back affectation, wants it any way he can get it. He's very good at gettin' by.

--Reported by James Carney with Bush, John F. Dickerson with McCain and Maggie Sieger/Detroit

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Cover Date: February 28, 2000

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