Read my knuckles
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?
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
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
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