GOPs internal rumbling

February 13, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

WHAT IS IT about John McCain that has sparked such intense interest in his long-shot presidential campaign?

Were used to maverick insurgencies on the Democratic left (Henry Wallace and Eugene McCarthy being the most familiar and Bill Bradley being the latest). But staid conservative Republicans going ga-ga over a candidate who wants to tear down the very establishment the GOP represents?

The Arizona senator's convincing victory in the New Hampshire primary has energized discontented Republicans. He has shot up in the polls and now stands a chance of winning the next primary in South Carolina.

If that occurs, the stage would be set for a showdown in March 7's Super Tuesday primaries -- including Marylands.

Two things may be happening. Both point to a disconnect between Republican Party insiders and the rank-and-file GOP voter. First, the candidate of the party elite, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, has emerged as a flawed aspirant.

The party's political and financial heavy-hitters are in his camp; hes amassed a staggering $70 million, and hes got the telegenic good looks and easygoing demeanor to woo GOP voters.

But he's not connecting with them. His campaign is so stuffed with cash it looks like he's simply trying to buy the election. He's given few indications of having the intellect for the job. His campaign has been all flash and little substance.

Mr. McCain's New Hampshire victory exposed the Bush campaigns soft underbelly. The Arizona senator is a lonely Republican crusader for campaign finance reform. When he's stacked up against the bloated war chest of Mr. Bush, there's no doubt who's the outsider and who's the protector of the status quo.

Mr. Bush just doesn't get it. Every time he tries to tar Mr. McCain with abusing campaign finance laws, he reinforces in the public's mind that he himself is the candidate of the GOP fat cats.

He cant make Mr. McCain the epitome of the Washington establishment. The senator is a maverick on the outs with his Republican colleagues; it's Mr. Bush, rich son of a former president, who's part of the ruling class.

The second key development is a belated recognition that GOP leaders haven't been focusing on the issues that really matter to party voters.

Tax cuts is what people -- especially Republicans -- want more than anything. Thats the mantra from Senate leader Trent Lott, House leader Dennis Hastert and Mr. Bush.

They couldnt be more off target.

Every poll consistently shows that Americans -- including Republican voters -- care most deeply right now about education, health care, preserving Medicare and Social Security and paying down the national debt.

Those are issues championed by Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore -- and Republican John McCain. In New Hampshire, voters cared not a wit about tax relief.

Mr. Bush should have taken his cue from the blunders of Mr. Lott and Mr. Hastert in Congress, where President Clinton has cleaned their clock by focusing on issues people care about.

Now its Mr. McCain, like Mr. Clinton, who has seized the all- important middle ground. He has become the GOP champion of the middle class.

In a sense, the Arizona senator is the Bill Clinton of the right. He has zeroed in on what bother folks -- the growing discontent over campaigns financing, unhappiness with health care, alarm over the future of Social Security. He's not an extremist but a pragmatist.

While Mr. Bush is ideological, Mr. McCain is practical. The Texas governor has carefully scripted his campaign so as not to offend any special interests within the party.

What he forgot is that most Republican voters arent special-interest supporters; theyre average working folks with a conservative leaning. They identify with the sincerity and reformist impulses of a John McCain. They like his blunt honesty.

It's still an uphill slog for the senator. A weakened Mr. Bush remains in prime position to garner enough delegates for the nomination.

But if the McCain magic works with the partys rank and file in South Carolina on Saturday, and again in Michigan and Arizona four days later, a true grass-roots revolution may be in the making within the GOP.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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