`Straight talk' faces TV test in S.C.

February 09, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- John S. McCain is facing a different kind of political test in the Republican primary here next week. If he passes it, it may show he is well-equipped to go all the way to the presidential nomination.

The Arizona senator's stunning success in New Hampshire was based on a schedule of personal campaigning that was unprecedented, even in a state in which face-to-face stumping has always been the first requirement. No one else has ever held 114 town meetings.

The result by primary day was that Mr. McCain had become a very special political phenomenon, a happening in himself who evoked an enormous outpouring of support. The turnout -- 238,000 Republicans and 155,000 Democrats -- shattered all records, largely because of a rush of independents to take part.

Here in South Carolina, there is no opportunity for Mr. McCain to do the intense personal canvassing that gave him a 19-point landslide triumph over Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. Because there is so little time and because the voters are scattered over a much larger area, the candidates will have to rely on television commercials and sound bites on television news programs.

So the operative question is whether Mr. McCain's "straight talk" style will come through the television cameras as compellingly as it did when the candidate displayed it in person. If that happens and he wins here Feb. 19, there is no reason to believe he cannot do the same thing in other states as the campaign becomes increasingly a competition on television.

The key indicator will be turnout. South Carolina has no party registration, so anyone can vote in the primary. And that means there is, once again, a substantial pool of independents upon which Mr. McCain might draw.

The usual primary turnout here is only about 10 percent of the registered voters. If that number rises substantially here, it probably will be a sign of another McCain victory buoyed by independents.

The situation here is not frozen, however, and Mr. McCain is not going to be operating in a vacuum. After a round of strategy conferences in Austin, Mr. Bush has returned to the campaign with a much more aggressive posture and a much harder line against his rival from Arizona. Increasingly, the airwaves are filled with commercials in which Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain accuse one another of going negative.

The problem for Mr. Bush lies in the new context of the campaign. In New Hampshire, the Texas governor was a prohibitive favorite until the last few days. He had the celebrity to muster big crowds, the money to fund a saturation television campaign and the credential of support from all of the state's leading Republicans from Sen. Judd Gregg down.

But the dimensions of Mr. McCain's victory have changed that playing field significantly. Mr. Bush still has the money and the backing of the vast majority of party leaders -- 27 governors, 37 senators and 175 members of the House of Representatives.

But it is John McCain who is the political celebrity of the moment. He is the one on the covers of all three weekly newsmagazines. He is the one whose campaign is coining money faster than they can count and record it. He is the one shooting up in opinion polls.

So the danger for Mr. Bush is that he will appear to be reacting out of desperation while the political world watches to see how he responds to his first spell of adversity as a presidential candidate.

Mr. Bush's prime asset as a candidate always has been the conventional wisdom within his party that he was the Republican with the best chance of recapturing the White House. The opinion polls convinced party leaders and contributors. Now many are wondering if they may not have to reconsider.

It could hardly be reassuring to political professionals to see Mr. Bush attacking war hero Mr. McCain on, of all things, his record on veterans' affairs. That evoked such a hot reaction, even from some Bush supporters, that he dropped it and moved on to attack Mr. McCain's credentials as a reformer. Suddenly we are being told that the real reformer in the race is the governor of Texas.

South Carolina was supposed to be the firewall for George W. Bush, the place where the candidate of the party establishment rights himself after problems in New Hampshire as the senior George Bush did in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996.

But they were both dealing with Pat Buchanan, and John McCain is a different matter entirely.

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

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