In N.H., a difficult road for McCain

Slip on abortion issue sets back campaign of plain-talking senator

September 06, 1999|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NASHUA, N.H. After listening to Sen. John McCain pitch his political reform ideas at a luncheon here, Caroline Wojcicki said she believed the Republican presidential candidate "has earned our respect."

But he has yet to gain her support. Wojcicki is also seriously considering another self-styled reformer who's been drawing enthusiastic crowds in the first primary state: former Sen. Bill Bradley, a New Jersey Democrat.

"The Republican Party no longer represents me," says Wojcicki of Amherst, N.H., who brought her teen-age daughter to the McCain event. "It has embraced far too much of the far right's agenda."

That's why she's inclined to switch her Republican registration, she says, and join the nation's fastest-growing voter group: those who belong to neither major party.

For McCain, who hopes the New Hampshire primary will propel him into serious contention in the 2000 presidential contest, the flight of disaffected Republican moderates into the independent column is potentially troublesome.

McCain attracted sizable audiences on his latest visit to the state, his 15th of the year. In an interview, he said that "the traction we are getting here is the most critical part of the campaign so far."

Two statewide polls in August showed McCain moving into second place in New Hampshire, slightly ahead of the bulk of the Republicans, though at least 30 percentage points behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush. But a new survey, released yesterday by WBZ-TV and the Boston Globe, showed Elizabeth Hanford Dole leading McCain for second place by 2 percentage points, a statistical tie.

A senior official of McCain's organization in New Hampshire said privately that a recent slip by McCain on the abortion issue had set back his progress in the state.

Moderate Republican and independent voters who support abortion rights were turned off, the campaign official said, when McCain's efforts to clarify his position only served to underline the staunchly anti-abortion record he had apparently tried to soften.

"My heart sank," the official said, when McCain backed away from statements this summer that he would not seek to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade that legalized abortion. McCain says his voting record in the House and Senate, which has been consistently anti-abortion, is the best indication of his position.

McCain vs. Bradley

When New Hampshire holds its presidential primary in February, independents are likely to outnumber registered Republicans or Democrats for the first time. Under state law, independents may choose either a Republican or Democratic ballot on primary election day.

It is unclear how many independents will vote in the primaries here (and in other states, such as California, whose primaries are open to all registered voters). But some moderates who have been leaning toward McCain could wind up supporting Bradley, who is also making political reform a major element of his outsider campaign against Washington.

Such a choice seemed to be on voters' minds as McCain's "Straight Talk Express" bus rolled across the Granite State last week. At a question-and-answer session at the New London town hall, he was asked to outline the differences between himself and Bradley.

"I think we could have a spirited and healthy debate," McCain said, if he and his liberal counterpart won their respective party nominations. "He's a very thoughtful man."

But McCain's prospects are also clouded by his high-risk plan to skip the Iowa caucuses, eight days before New Hampshire votes.

Bradley, the only Democratic primary challenger to Al Gore, is hoping that a strong showing in Iowa will generate excitement heading into his showdown with the vice president in New Hampshire. Meanwhile, McCain, who says he'll make a final decision soon about contesting Iowa, could find himself on the sidelines immediately before the New Hampshire primary if he decides not to compete in Iowa and winds up being overshadowed by Bradley and others who do well there.

Senate nonconformist

During his five-day, 16-city bus tour, McCain said his first priority as president would be to "clean up government." The Arizona senator is the leading Republican sponsor of a measure that would overhaul campaign finance by, among other things, doing away with the large donations known as "soft money."

McCain, 63, who has "made my entire life experience my campaign," is running on a resume that includes 5 1/2 years spent under brutal conditions in a North Vietnamese prison camp. In a new book, "Faith of My Fathers," written with longtime aide Mark Salter, he traces the roots of his persistently nonconformist behavior, which has brought him into conflict with authority at various points along the way, including in his years at the Naval Academy.

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