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Jewish World Review Feb. 14, 2000 /8 Adar I, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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McCain and the Republicans --
JOHN MCCAIN has the Republican Party in an uproar.

Among wealthy Republican donors who thought that George W. would enjoy a slow-motion coronation during the primaries, McCain's surprising strength is about as welcome as hair lice. Among rank-and-file Republicans who thought the party regulars still controlled the nominating process, there is dismay that so many Democrats are crossing the line and voting for a guy Republicans might not select on their own. And among conservative activists, some of whom work with McCain in Congress, there is abject horror at the prospect of a McCain victory.

Not that we should be too hard on the contributors to George W. Bush. They picked a fine man. George W. is solid and well-adjusted. He is smart enough, experienced enough and likable enough to make a good candidate. And it is my belief that he would make a good president. He may yet do so.

But George W. Bush has his hands full attempting to counter the McCain phenomenon. People ask, "What should W. do?" There may be no good answer. He cannot relive his life and manage to get shot down over North Vietnam.

McCain is attracting thousands to rallies that were planned for hundreds. He received 25 percent of the vote in the Delaware primary without showing up once in the state. His eager supporters spill over the thresholds of buildings and bunch up outside. They bring their children and hoist them on their shoulders, explaining: "This is Sen. McCain. He refused early release from a Vietnam prison and spent two years in solitary."

Not only does McCain seem tailor-made as the anti-Clinton, he is also an extremely shrewd campaigner. He swaps war stories (literal and figurative) with the press guys on the bus. To these softer, younger Americans, for whom (myself included) a power outage is as close to torture as we are ever likely to get, a chat with McCain is a chance to drink in vicarious testosterone. He allows as how he broke under torture and is no hero. And he knows as sure as George W. served in the National Guard that these liberals will come away thinking (and writing), "Of course he's a hero!"

As National Review's astute Kate O'Bierne points out, he inoculated himself early against the fact that he is not nearly as popular at home in Arizona
as he is with the Washington press corps by suggesting that the Arizona Republic has some sort of vendetta against him. That Arizona's governor, Republican Jane Hull, is supporting George W. is dismissed as a fluke.

There is no vendetta, and it's no fluke. And when the press recovers from its current swoon for McCain, they will rush to correct the oversight. Sure, he is beguiling on the bus. But if journalists remembered their job and dug a bit, they'd discover that McCain is loathed by many of his colleagues for his screaming, finger-waving fits when he is crossed. Lobbyists tell stories of rudeness bordering on bullying. Yes, he was genuinely heroic in Vietnam, but he has been quick to exploit that history for cheap shots against competitors. When Alan Keyes questioned his understanding of the abortion issue, McCain shot back, "I've seen enough of death," as if it were an impertinence to question a war hero's views.

And while styling himself an "outsider" and a rebel, it's amazing that McCain never seems to put his thumb in the eye of liberal Democrats -- the ultimate establishment. Only his fellow Republicans get that treatment. One leading committee chairman in the United States Senate said last weekend, "If McCain wins, I just hope Republicans have a veto-proof majority in the Senate."

McCain is banking that personality and character will trump everything else in 2000, and he may be right. Voters do not seem to know or care where McCain stands on the issues. Certainly attacks on his war service or commitment to veterans, as Bush attempted last week, play directly into McCain's hands.

And while he is not the sort of Republican many of us would choose, there is something about his popularity that is reassuring. People still admire virtues like courage, self-sacrifice and patriotism. They still long for leaders they can admire. A McCain rally is as much a pageant of patriotism as a plea for votes.

All of which suggests good things about the voters. It's a shame that the man doesn't more fully embody the virtues they seek.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate