McCain goes down to a bitter defeat, turns to Michigan

Candidate claims high road in face of harsh attacks

February 20, 2000|By BOSTON GLOBE

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Ending his hard-fought and crucial South Carolina campaign where he began it -- with fellow war veterans -- Arizona Sen. John McCain called on "my comrades" to undertake "one more mission" and vote for him.

"I think we're going to win this election, but it's going to be dictated by voter turnout," McCain told a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Greenville, S.C., yesterday morning. "I'm asking you to go on one more mission and make sure you and everybody you know votes."

By late afternoon, however, McCain knew that the majority of South Carolinians had not voted for him. In Charleston, McCain took a long nap to prepare for what his friend, former New Hampshire Sen. Warren B. Rudman, said was a 48-hour sprint ahead, to the Michigan and Arizona primaries.

"John is a very solid guy, and defeats are part of politics," Rudman said, adding that McCain had taken "one of the greatest negative assaults" he could recall in South Carolina.

"There were a thousand tomahawks in the air, and it was hard to fight off every one of them," said John Weaver, McCain's political director.

The stakes could not have been higher, as the former POW and political maverick who won a spectacular victory in the New Hampshire primary 20 days ago needed to show here that he was no shooting star but the candidate with the staying power to stop Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Campaign advisers insisted that McCain would press on, probably through March's primary-heavy schedule, and they predicted that he would win Tuesday's contests in Michigan and his home state.

A big turnout of Democrats and independents propelled McCain in New Hampshire. Yesterday, McCain woke up to polls that showed Bush with a solid lead overall and to calls from supporters who suggested that Republican Party operatives were making it hard for independents and Democrats to vote.

According to McCain aides, more than 20 polling places in largely Democratic, African-American neighborhoods of Greenville did not open as planned yesterday, and voters were rerouted to a "consolidated" precinct. Weaver accused the GOP chairman in Greenville County of closing polling places the party had agreed to staff under the federal Voting Rights Act.

McCain did not charge anyone with trying to suppress turnout, but he did call for an investigation and said he was unhappy voters had been denied access to the polls.

"It's just disappointing that anyone, anywhere, is deprived of the ability to vote," McCain told reporters as he prepared to leave Greenville for Charleston. "It's just not fair. It's not in keeping with the principles of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party."

McCain, who got into an acrimonious debate with Bush over who was running the dirtier race, told the veterans he was proud of his campaign in South Carolina.

"I hope we prevail today, but if we don't, we know we have taken the honorable way," said McCain, who last week directed his staff to pull some negative ads off the air. "I am proud of the way we have conducted this campaign."

Weaver refused to second-guess the campaign's decision to pull the negative ads, even as Bush bombarded South Carolinians with a harshly anti-McCain message. He said the decision was McCain's, and "it was the right thing to do.

"It's John's campaign, and he did not want to wake up, or have his family wake up, and feel dirty about it," said Weaver.

"He's a great man," said Johnnie Robinson, a past state commander of the VFW.

McCain, too, seemed moved by what he called "this wild ride," which yesterday included his wife, Cindy, their four children, two grown sons from a first marriage, and a bus load of friends from Arizona.

"When I'm very old, in the old soldiers' home with my feet up on the railing," McCain said, "I'll look back on the South Carolina experience and say, `That was an incredible part of my life.' "

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