Drama, Not Conspiracy, Led To McCain's Success

25 February 2000

By Stentor Danielson

Tuesday night was a disappointing one for Texas Governor and Republican Presidential candidate George W. Bush. Despite his optimism that morning -- a reasonable sentiment, given his endorsement by the Michigan GOP establishment and the voters in the South Carolina primary a few days earlier -- he lost to opponent John McCain in both Michigan and Arizona. But rather than conceding that McCain's ideology or image appealed more to the voters of those two states, Bush warned that there were "people coming into our primary to try to hijack the election, to hijack the primary to help Al Gore."

The numbers would seem to back Bush's accusation. Bush won convincingly among Republicans in Michigan. But the primary was open to voters of all parties, and McCain captured two thirds of the Democratic and independent vote. Bush doubtlessly hopes to portray himself as the only "real" Republican in the race, a claim that may well be validated when California and New York hold their closed primaries in which only Republicans may vote. But to suggest that there is some sort of vast leftist conspiracy to nominate a GOP candidate that likely Democratic nominee and current Vice-President Gore can beat or who is a secret liberal is ludicrous.

The most obvious opposition to Bush's claim comes from pollsters. When presented with various possible matchups of presidential candidates, McCain fares better against Gore than does Bush. The trend makes sense. In an attempt to lessen the effect of McCain's great personal appeal -- a result of his compelling story of his time as a prisoner in Vietnam and his willingness to talk to reporters aboard the Straight Talk Express -- after seeing the damage it did in New Hampshire, Bush took a big step to the right.

While this may win over hard-core conservatives (as South Carolina's results proved), it does little to endear a candidate to the liberals and moderates whose support is necessary to any GOP candidate who wants to win the White House.

If liberals truly wanted to trick the GOP into nominating a candidate that Gore can beat, they would be advised to vote for a right-wing candidate like Alan Keyes. Despite his oratorical prowess, Keyes' ultra-conservative message alienated even the Republican mainstream, leaving him with only five percent of the Michigan voters. I'd be surprised to hear there was a single Democrat among them.

The truth is, McCain has been capturing the hearts of Democrats and Independents. These people don't want the GOP to nominate McCain because they doubt his promise to "beat Al Gore like a drum." They're voting for McCain in the primaries because they want the chance to vote for him again in November.

Why they like McCain is a more complicated issue. Bush and his supporters have done their best to paint McCain as a closet liberal. For example, The National Right to Life Committee condemned McCain for harboring pro-choice sentiments. But his voting record is overwhelmingly pro-life. A tax cut, such as Bush's famously huge proposal, has long been a conservative plank. But while McCain doesn't go as far as Bush, he does promise to cut taxes, while using the remaining surplus to pay down the national debt. While this isn't a traditional Republican message, it is far more conservative than Al Gore and Bill Bradley's plans to increase spending for education and health insurance.

What hurts Bush is not a liberal conspiracy within the Republican primaries. It's drama.

McCain's most obvious assets are his war story and his pledge to clean up campaign finance. The appeal of a man who refused early release from a Vietnam prisoner of war camp is easy enough to understand, especially in a day when tragedies like the shootings at Columbine High School have left much of the nation pining for a resurgence of morality and principle.

McCain's signature issue of campaign finance reform hits the same nerve. While cutting soft money donations does not typically rank high on voters' lists of concerns, the cry of a maverick come to clean out the corruption in a system that has left many Americans disenchanted is appealing. McCain paints himself as the antithesis of the Bill Clinton era of untrustworthy politics.

Furthermore, McCain has found himself the hero in a page-turning newspaper drama. The media is disproportionately inclined to cover the Republican race, even in New Hampshire when both parties had primaries at the same time. Bush would like us to think that McCain is the darling of the biased liberal media, who delight in seeing a Democrat at heart invading the Republican race. But why then does the race between Gore and Bradley -- two avowed liberals -- get the short end of the stick?

The answer is drama. Gore and Bradley have their differences, but they are less obvious. For example, they both put increasing health care for the poor high on their list of priorities. They just disagree about the particulars of implementation.

But on the Republican side, we have the makings of a great novel. The GOP was smitten with Bush. With his family history and huge war chest, he was anointed the next Republican candidate and, by most estimates, the next president.

Then along comes McCain, an energetic and engaging challenger who quickly earns himself the appealing title of maverick with his untraditional (yet not unconservative) proposals. In the cleverly named Straight Talk Express, he set out to do battle with the candidate of big money and institutional backing. And, to voters' excitement, he held his own.

Every preliminary poll that shows the two in a race closer than the poll's margin of error (as compared to Gore's significant lead over Bradley) invites us to compare the race to David and Goliath. And such drama is what is bringing unprecedented numbers of people, especially Democrats and Independents, to the Republican voting booths. McCain's politics are not nearly liberal enough to account for his appeal outside his party. Avowed Democrats do not vote in the Republican primary because of issues.

McCain's dramatic appeal is a powerful thing. Based solely on issues, I ought to be wearing a "Gore 2000" button. But I still find myself rooting more for McCain than for either Democrat. And it's not because I think Gore can beat him in the general election.

If Bush wants to find the secret of McCain's success in New Hampshire, Michigan and Arizona, he is looking in the wrong place. He needs to take off the black hat that McCain and the drama-hungry media have put on him. Claiming a left-wing conspiracy will only hurt him come November.

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