McCain lost magic with negative slant

Jawing back at Bush took focus, momentum from unique campaign

March 09, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- On a warm winter day last month, John McCain's "Straight Talk Express" bus was rolling across South Carolina, and the candidate, as usual, was holed up in the back, answering questions from reporters.

McCain was still bristling over a Bush campaign event a few days earlier, when the Texas governor stood by while a surrogate accused McCain of having "forgotten" his fellow veterans after he came home from Vietnam.

Describing his need to respond as "almost a matter of honor," McCain said, "When I'm attacked, I'm going to fire back. The only way to dissuade your opponent" from negative attacks is "to make sure that the price they pay for those attacks is a very high one."

As events played out, however, it was McCain who paid the higher price.

According to those both inside and outside of the McCain camp, those days in early February have emerged as a turning point, the moment at which McCain began losing the magic that had made him the hottest political property in years.

McCain tripped himself up, they said, by abandoning the very things that had made him so attractive in the first place: his reformist message and a positive campaign style, which represented a sharp break from politics as usual.

"When you've got something that's working, a solid message that's defying everyone's expectations, you keep doing it," said Dave Carney, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire.

Instead, he said, McCain talked increasingly about campaign tactics and got bogged down in negative attacks by Bush and his allies.

"He didn't even talk about campaign finance reform, except to talk about `their tactics are bad, that's why we need campaign finance reform,' " Carney noted.

McCain became, in other words, just another politician.

To the end of his campaign, which could come as early as today, the McCain phenomenon has been a study in contrasts, raising as many questions as it answered and remaining something of a mystery even to those who created it.

Uniting the alienated

A novice national candidate at the advanced age of 63, the Arizona senator pumped extraordinary interest into the presidential contest. He drew thousands of new people into the Republican primaries, including Democrats and independents, first-time voters and many who had become alienated by Washington politics and had once been drawn to Ross Perot's outsider candidacy.

"The campaign tapped into a very deep sentiment among independent voters for an end to politics as usual," said Marshall Wittmann, a McCain campaign adviser. "What we have now is the emergence of the `McCain independent' and the `McCain Republican,' and John McCain is the leader of that movement."

McCain failed to win the Republican nomination, however, because he was weakest where it mattered most: in the conservative heart of his own party.

He failed to connect with enough Republicans, despite what all agreed was a reliably conservative voting record during more than 17 years in Congress. McCain ran what looked like a general election campaign -- reaching out to the swing voters any Republican would love to have in the fall -- before he had locked up the nomination.

His success in expanding the Republican voter universe was greater than any presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan. But the Republican establishment never warmed to his candidacy.

Bush and his allies played a big hand in denying McCain the party's embrace. After losing New Hampshire, the anti-McCain forces, which included powerful interest groups whose political activities were threatened by his campaign reform proposals, unleashed a steady barrage of negative assaults against him, over the airwaves, through the telephone and in the mail.

But McCain did his part, too. Concerned that he would undermine his support from independents, he never managed to tailor a message that effectively reached out to conservatives.

Instead, his appeal was largely personal, a complicated, and seemingly contradictory, mix of brash, devil-may-care bravado and old-fashioned patriotism. He railed against the system, while using his chairmanship of a powerful Senate committee to exact contributions from lobbyists.

His aw-shucks demeanor, backed by an inspiring life story of courage in wartime, clashed at times with the candidate who seemed unable to rise above every sling and arrow that came his way on the campaign trail.

To many, he was the embodiment of everything that President Clinton wasn't: the ultimate character candidate. A prisoner of war who survived the infamous Hanoi Hilton, McCain turned book-signings for his best-selling autobiography into campaign events.

His story, and his open manner on the campaign trail, seemed an antidote to Clinton's calculating politics and personal flaws. But doubts about McCain's temperament, which emerged under the searing heat of an unforgiving campaign process, may be among the reasons his bid faltered.

Some Republican veterans said McCain never really had a chance to capitalize on his New Hampshire upset.

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