Bush scrambles to dig out of N.H. avalanche

February 04, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The first order of business for Gov. George W. Bush in the next two Republican primaries -- in Delaware on Tuesday and in South Carolina on Feb. 19 -- is to restore the "inevitability" of his nomination so shaken by Sen. John McCain in New Hampshire.

On paper, he has the stuff to do it -- a huge advantage in money and the party establishment leadership in both states. But he had both the bucks and the party bodies in the Granite State, and they weren't nearly enough to save him from the avalanche that buried him in the snowy north.

He had neither a winning issue nor the winning personality, for all his happy mugging and snowmobile frolicking, to match Mr. McCain's straight talk and his inspirational call for voters to strive for goals "greater than their own self-interest."

The trouble with running wrapped in the armor of inevitability is that one chink and a front-runner can turn into the rusted Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz," without an oil can. Once before in New Hampshire, another "inevitable" nominee, the late Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, saw his candidacy in 1972 begin to rust in the winter snow when a real or perceived crying performance over a newspaper's insults to his wife branded him as a risky bet in the White House.

Mr. Muskie, like Mr. Bush, had piled up a mountain of endorsements from party establishment leaders, and although he won the New Hampshire Democratic primary he failed to achieve the majority of votes at least one of his campaign strategists set as the yardstick for victory. Sen. George McGovern ran a closer-than-expected second, ignited his own campaign, and Mr. Muskie's inevitability vanished. He ran a dismal fourth in a subsequent primary in Florida and was a goner.

Mr. Muskie's problem was not only the perceived "crying in the snow" episode. In the midst of the Vietnam War, he seemed unable to make up his mind where he stood on it, while Mr. McGovern ran as an unabashed critic in a Democratic Party split down the middle, with antiwar activists bent on using the nomination fight as a battleground on the war issue.

Twenty-eight years later, Mr. Bush in New Hampshire often seemed to be laughing his way through the primary, at the same time pegging his campaign to the old Republican call for deep tax cuts that, in the current prosperity, were no longer very high on GOP voters' wish lists.

Meanwhile, Mr. McCain hammered away at such serious themes as campaign finance reform and using the good-times federal surplus to pay down the federal debt.

Mr. Bush's last days in New Hampshire raised some surprising questions about his strategists' assessment of what he needed to do. After all the Republican debates, nagging doubts about his substance continued to be written about in the news media and expressed by voters. But instead of addressing them, he seemed satisfied to play the regular guy.

In addition to snowmobiling, he took a turn as goalie in a soccer game and went bowling, without much success. He wasn't as bad as another Republican front-runner, Gov. George Romney, who in 1968 rolled an astonishing 34 balls to knock over 10 duckpins in what became a metaphor for his hapless campaign. But Mr. Bush's playfulness didn't do anything to dispel concerns about the smarts of the candidate his mother referred to at a rally as "our boy."

His New Hampshire media strategist, Pat Griffin, said of Mr. Bush's frolicking to the Boston Globe: "It's color. It helps us win on personality. I've never seen John McCain without a coat and tie on -- winning New Hampshire is as much about image as issues." The Globe quoted Mr. Griffin as calling it "the Elvis factor, the rock star factor."

Whatever it was called, it clearly didn't work. In the primaries ahead, restoring Mr. Bush's "inevitability" for the nomination will require a tougher, hungrier candidate to go with his money and endorsements, if he is to avoid becoming the next Ed Muskie.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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