Pressure on McCain is intense, time short

Underdog needs to win Michigan in two days

February 20, 2000|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- George W. Bush's impressive victory in South Carolina sets the stage for a quick knockout rather than the protracted fight for the Republican nomination that seemed likely only 19 days ago.

In another sharp reversal of form, the front-running Texas governor has regained his footing after being thrashed by 18 percentage points in the New Hampshire primary Feb. 1. And the burden of proof has now shifted to John McCain.

The Arizona senator needs an instant success in Michigan and in his home state Tuesday to wipe away the bad taste left by his loss here. The imperative for McCain is to change the subject just as Bush has done, by winning.

The dimensions of the defeat he suffered here were imposing enough to have some effect in Michigan. The electorate there includes more moderate than conservative Republicans and relatively few from the religious right. But the voters all form their impressions of the campaign from the same television networks.

And what they saw yesterday was a confident front-runner praising his vanquished opponent and a loser who could not contain his bitterness before flying to Michigan for two crucial days of campaigning.

McCain will also make a heightened commitment to the Virginia primary on Feb. 29. John Weaver, his political director, said the campaign had already been planning to increase both its advertising and ground campaigns at a cost of $2 million.

Virginia looks attractive to McCain because of the heavy concentrations of military personnel in the Norfolk-Newport News area. Some analysts also believe that the Arizona senator would have a strong appeal to moderate Republicans in the Washington suburbs of Northern Virginia.

McCain, cast once again as the long-shot challenger, probably needs to win two of the three states to be a serious player in the critical primaries March 7 in California, New York and a dozen other states, including Maryland.

The Arizonan has used the celebrity he gained from New Hampshire to raise enough money to be respectably financed, if not totally competitive with Bush in the contests ahead. But the campaign in California, the main event in that round of primaries, will be fought in the television news broadcasts even more than in the commercials.

And McCain needs to be depicted as a serious competitor with Bush, not as a struggling underdog with no realistic chance to be nominated.

The immediate question, however, is how and whether McCain can find a way to counter another fusillade of attacks from Bush without destroying his own image as a different kind of political leader taking the high road.

That is something McCain failed to do here. Though he was far more the victim than the aggressor in this campaign, opinion polls showed that by primary day, he was viewed as just as much the guilty party on "going negative." Bush's assault was so intense that he even convinced a majority of voters here that he, rather than McCain, was the champion of political reform.

Bush will not find the electorate everywhere as susceptible to his campaign line as the Republicans in South Carolina proved to be. The party regulars here are highly conservative on the kind of social and cultural issues that hurt McCain the most.

Bush and McCain generally agree, for example, on giving a modest priority to reversing Roe vs. Wade and passing a constitutional amendment to forbid abortions. But the Christian Coalition attacked McCain on the issue, as did Alan L. Keyes, the radio talk-show host who is the third Republican candidate in the race.

By the end of the campaign, McCain was being depicted as a liberal lately out of the closet, an odd description considering his conservative voting record.

The Texas governor may pay some price down the line for his obeisance to the religious right. In Michigan, he is certain to be asked to explain his speech at Bob Jones University, an institution so far on the fringe that it forbids interracial dating by its students.

That assumes, of course, that McCain can find a way to make a case against Bush as an extremist without damaging himself even more. Winners always seem to have more insulation from criticism in intraparty fights.

Quite beyond the impending primaries, however, Bush could pay a price as the nominee. In both 1992 and 1996, President Clinton won majorities in normally Republican suburbs all across the Northeast and the Midwest. Polling showed that the defections were heaviest among moderates reacting against the "family values" issues -- meaning the hard line against abortion rights and homosexual rights, among other things.

For Bush, the imperative is to lock up the nomination before any serious breaches develop within the party. And if he is going to get a running start against the Democratic nominee, he also needs to do so before he spends the $20 million remaining of the $70 million he has raised in the past year.

This is the point in the campaign in which the widespread support Bush enjoys from party leaders -- 27 governors, 37 senators, 175 members of the House of Representatives -- can have some practical value. Unless McCain wins quickly, there will be a chorus of demands for him to close down his campaign in the name of party unity.

McCain was obviously in no mood to be conciliatory after the votes were counted here. And he has never paid a great deal of attention to what party leaders say. On the contrary, he has been consistently at odds with most of them throughout his career. It is one of the reasons he has been so appealing to voters weary of politics as usual.

Those voters made up a minority in South Carolina. After the beating he suffered here, John McCain has little margin for error.

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