Zigs and zags on the road to GOP nominee

February 28, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The campaign of John S. McCain may be confronting the political community with what it most abhors -- something new and entirely different.

Politicians are always uneasy in situations that have no obvious precedent on which to base their judgments and actions. The Arizona senator seems to be causing just such dilemmas in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination.

Mr. McCain has hit some nerve in the electorate that has not been touched by another candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1980 or, perhaps more accurately, Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. The result is an obvious renewal of confidence in the political system that has been reflected in huge increases in the turnout in primary elections, a reversal of a pattern of declining participation in politics since 1994.

The changes in the nature of the campaign attributed to Mr. McCain cast doubt on the conventional wisdom about what is happening and what is likely to happen in his contest against Gov. George W. Bush of Texas for the nomination.

Refuting premises

In the political community, one of the premises all along has been that Mr. Bush could not be denied because he had such broad support from leaders of the Republican Party and from financial contributors. Indeed, entering the primary season Mr. Bush was a prohibitive favorite.

But neither the money nor the establishment support has proven to be much help in deterring Mr. McCain. Mr. Bush has now frittered away more than $50 million of the $70 million he had raised.

And the leadership of such prominent Republicans as Sen. Judd Gregg in New Hampshire and Gov. John Engler of Michigan has been powerless to stop "the straight talk express," as Mr. McCain likes to call his campaign bus. The one leader whose support apparently paid dividends for Mr. Bush has been Pat Robertson, the head of the Christian Coalition that delivered so heavily among social conservatives in South Carolina.

Toppling heavyweights

The logical inference is that Mr. McCain's ability to increase the size of the voting universe has been more important than the advice of party heavyweights about whom to support.

Bush and some of his strategists are arguing, of course, that these McCain totals are being inflated by independents and some Democrats. And they see this support as evidence that Mr. McCain is a dangerous liberal who cannot win with constituencies of regular Republicans.

That theory may be challenged, however, on several grounds. The first is that many voters may not see the politics of 2000 in ideological terms. Instead, the opinion polls make it clear that it is the persona of John McCain that has made him a galvanizing force in the campaign.

The Arizona Republican is a legitimate war hero. He is a maverick willing to defy party orthodoxy on such issues as campaign finance reform. He is open and outspoken, even when it leads him to say things he should not say. And, perhaps most important, he is the obvious antithesis of President Clinton.

Mobilizing the right

So far Mr. Bush has managed to mobilize the most socially conservative Republicans such as those who put him over the top in South Carolina and made up much of his vote in Michigan. In some Southern states, those Republicans are the heart of the party.

And the conventional wisdom is that this constituency is essential to success in primaries in which only Republicans take part. That theory argues for the inevitability of Mr. Bush.

But the cultural conservatives are less of a factor in many major states, including California and New York, that will hold critical primaries March 7 or later in the schedule.

Instead, there are many fiscally conservative and socially moderate Republicans to whom McCain may be attractive. These are the Republicans who defected to Bill Clinton in both 1992 and 1996 because they were uncomfortable with the Republicans' moralistic tone on such issues as abortion rights and homosexual rights.

So, once again, there may be reason to question the conventional wisdom that Mr. McCain will hit a stone wall once he begins running in primaries that bar Democrats and independents.

He can give the lie to that premise if he is able once again to raise the turnout, this time with Republicans who have been wandering from the party.

The campaign is not static, of course. Given what already has happened this year, several zigs and zags are likely before the Republicans settle on a nominee. The one certainty is that there are no reliable ways to predict those zigs and zags.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write fromThe Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux,1999).

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