by David Corn
Hampshire was a blast. Alan Keyes described grisly details of abortion
to grade-schoolers in Bedford, asking them, over the objections of a
teacher, if they thought it was okay to bash in a child's head. Former
Celtics player and coach Tommy Heinsohn praised Bill Bradley outside the
Manchester YWCA, but railed against overly generous government pensions. (He
didn't know Bradley's position on this issue.) Cut to Bush at a high school
gym in Amherst attacking President Clinton for making decisions by polls and
focus groups, while Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director, was in the
back of the room, explaining to a group of students that the Bush campaign
uses polls to "craft message."
Meanwhile, Al Gore's declaring his campaign would not descend to name-calling, while his press secretary, Chris Lehane, huddled with reporters and tested different epithets for Bradley: "professor of petulance, duke of negativity, vicar of vituperation." John McCain at a Windham townhall meeting sounded like Ross Perot explaining what he'd do about global warming: hold congressional hearings and "get the best minds in America" to "give us some definitive conclusions ... and give us a roadmap." A lonely-looking Gary Bauer sought out reporters in front of a Nashua hotel and announced, "I have a statement to make." And, best of all, one could witness the de-smirking of Bush -- the $70 million man. On election night, a local reporter, seeking a confirm-the-obvious quote, asked me if I thought the Republican results were a wake-up call for Bush. No, I replied, it was more like a chicken being stuffed up his ass.
Bush's ads in New Hampshire called for "A Fresh Start for America." But in booming New Hampshire -- high-tech companies have sprouted throughout the southern half -- only a fool is looking for a "fresh start." That ad line may have been designed as a veiled reference to Monicagate, but it did not resonate when the competition was an anti-bullshit war hero. Bush's campaign appearances were syrupy, full of references to his love of his family, his love of his country, his love of everybody. "Love is so much more powerful than hate," he said at one high school. "I know that sounds simplistic... Moms and dads must say to their children, 'I love you.'" He was pushing his trademarked compassionate conservatism. When not championing tort reform, free trade and a supply-side tax cut that benefits the well-heeled, he talked of rallying "armies of compassion" to address social problems. "I'm a uniter, not a divider," he proclaimed.
After the shellacking in the Granite State, Bush scurried to South Carolina, which holds a primary on Feb. 19, and his first stop there was Bob Jones University, a bastion of religious-right conservatism, where interracial dating is uncompassionately banned. At Bob Jones U., Jeb Bush would not be permitted to date his wife.
So what was that about not being a divider? The comp-con script was in the trash. In conservative South Carolina, it seems Bush is going to try to whack McCain from the right. His "compassionate conservative" slogan was created to win the support of both conservatives and moderate Republicans, without forcing Bush to swing too far to the right for the general election. A few days before New Hampshire, Bush bragged to one bigfoot journalist that he'd done nothing yet in pursuit of the GOP nomination that would return to haunt him. Then came Bob Jones. The Democrats must now be writing the commercials that will air in black and Hispanic areas, should Bush become the GOP nominee.
But Bush and his backers have to do something. As Bill Kristol said last Thursday the Republican establishment in DC was in a state of total conniption. (Actually, he used the word "panic.") McCain's maverick style is based largely on his blasts against the sleazy, special-interests-dominated campaign finance system and the lobbyist-hyenas who profit from this institutionally corrupt status quo. Think Trent Lott wants someone like that in the White House? The first reflex of the GOP poohbahs, then, was to attack McCain-who'd jumped 20 or so points in South Carolina polls the day after his New Hampshire victory-as a faux-Republican, a liberal.
But in New Hampshire, the usual right-wing standards hadn't worked. Bush's supply-side tax cut was a liability, compared to McCain's more modest proposal. (Given that the House Republicans have retreated on big tax cuts and that the Senate Republicans have spurned such an idea, the supply-side gang is a lonely bunch these days.) And polls and anecdotal reporting in New Hampshire showed that abortion was not much of a motivating issue for GOP voters. Only a small number care enough about it to screen their GOP candidates closely on this front. Both Bush and McCain, who profess to be anti-abortion, declined to discuss the issue in New Hampshire unless asked.
But now the plan for Bush -- who was endorsed by Dan Quayle the day after the New Hampshire election -- is to veer right, push the tax plan, appeal to social conservatives and tag McCain the reformer a hypocritical Washington insider for accepting contributions from lobbyists. It's a version of the old Nixon advice for Republican contenders: go right in the primary, dash to the center in the general. But Bush's course correction may well be viewed as damn obvious, and it'll be tough for moneyman Bush or his establishment surrogates to toss invective ("you liberal!" "you insider!") at a former POW who is more of a challenge to Washington's ways than Bush.
With independents and Democrats eligible to vote in the South Carolina GOP primary, a red-meat appeal to the right does not guarantee results. Bush's attempt to challenge McCain on foreign policy and military grounds also seems a losing cause. In South Carolina, Bush proclaimed, "We must have a commander-in-chief who understands the role of the military." Which sounds like he's endorsing McCain. All the strategizing money can buy may not help Bush, for the race could boil down to this simple comparison: McCain is a much more leader-like fellow than Junior. What's the gameplan for dealing with that?
Still, nothing is over. Bush has strong claims on the delegate-rich Texas and Florida primaries. He has a massive cash advantage. The New Hampshire returns, though, showed that Bush, a politician with a short resume, has ended up where he should have started this race: needing to prove himself as a candidate.
February 13, 2000 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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