McCain's bid born of hope

March 13, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Whatever his future, it is already fair to say that John S. McCain has left an impressive legacy in American politics.

In his brief walk across the national stage, the Republican from Arizona has demonstrated that there are a substantial number of Americans who will respond positively to a candidate who says what's on his mind without parsing every sentence.

That substantial number was not, of course, a majority of those who voted in Repubican primaries. They were outnumbered by those who preferred a far more conventional politician, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.

But they made up a clear majority of those Republicans who had the most intense and prolonged exposure to Mr. McCain, meaning the voters who gave him a landslide victory in the New Hampshire primary Feb. 1. By conducting 114 town meetings over several months, he made his case to thousands who clearly found him convincing.

There was no mystery about his appeal. The voters there saw him, above all, as authentic. And that quality alone set him apart from most of those who succeed in American politics today by never taking a spontaneous action and never saying an unscripted word. Mr. McCain was so different, in fact, that he let the reporters ride along with him all day without hiding behind shields of anonymity.

Mr. McCain's special quality was, however, one that required close and extended personal exposure to the voters, the kind that is available in presidential politics only in the Iowa precinct caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

When the campaign moved on to become one conducted largely in brief appearances on television screens, either in commercials or news reports, Mr. McCain could never project his special qualities as vividly as he had been able to do in person day after day, week after week, month after month.

And the voters were far less interested anyway. In New Hampshire Mr. McCain built his following over several months. He became the buzz of the political discussion all over the state, the only candidate in either party who seemed capable of evoking any genuine zeal from voters.

His extraordinary appeal was reflected in the huge turnout in the New Hampshire primary that, exit polling showed, could be traced to independents, Democrats and less activist Republicans drawn to the polling places by Mr. McCain.

In the later campaigns -- and particularly in the Super Tuesday rush of primaries -- most voters didn't focus on the candidates or their choices until the final days. And many of them went along with the party establishment.

The Arizona senator complicated his own task, of course, by making both tactical and strategic gaffes that turned attention away from the basic thrust of his candidacy -- that he was someone different. Rather than being seen as the independent reacting against politics as usual, Mr. McCain fell into the trap of arguing about which campaign was playing the dirtiest politics.

In factual terms, he may have had the high ground. The Bush campaign clearly hit some kind of low when it produced that veterans' "leader" in South Carolina who questioned Mr. McCain's bona fides on the concerns of veterans. It was a piece of grubby politics.

But winning the gold star for running a clean campaign is not the same thing as running a winning campaign. What Mr. McCain needed most of all was to focus the attention of voters on his personal qualities, not his complaints about the process.

By failing to stay "on message," as the political strategists always describe it, Mr. McCain allowed Mr. Bush to find his own footing and even steal the image of the Arizona Republican. Only three weeks after the New Hampshire primary, opinion polls found that just as many Republicans named Mr. Bush as Mr. McCain when asked who was the reformer of the two.

The litany of Mr. McCain's mistakes, however cannot wipe out the record of his successes in making so many Americans view politics and politicians with some hope they might offer positive leadership. After sharp declines in voter participation in the last three elections, the interest in John McCain has to be considered a triumph of hope over experience.

And that alone is more of a legacy than most politicians leave behind a losing campaign.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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