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Jewish World Review March 12, 2000

Don Feder

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McCain moved Bush closer to White House -- GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH owes Sen. John McCain, who ended his presidential bid last week, an enormous debt of gratitude. The primary race was boot camp for Bush, with McCain as his unwitting drill instructor.

McCain kept Bush in the spotlight. Without a tough GOP primary, the media will follow their instinct to ignore the party.

McCain made the Republican primaries interesting, especially since the media wanted desperately for him to win. The Democratic race quickly became an afterthought.

McCain toughened Bush for the fall campaign. Conventional wisdom holds that a mean primary season is bad for Republicans. Sen. Robert Dole supposedly lost in '96 due to Pat Buchanan's harsh attacks. In reality, Buchanan was much harder on President Bush in '92. Dole lost on his own dismal performance. Tough primaries strengthened the senior Bush in 1988 and Clinton in 1992.

Prior to New Hampshire, Bush was sleepwalking. McCain's early victories shocked the governor out of his stupor and put him in the combat mode he'll need to win in November.

This is going to be a bruising campaign. Democratic cadres -- feminists, race hustlers, union bosses, gay activists, Hollywood celebs -- will go to the wall to assure four more years of Clinton-Gore, which has been very good to them on everything from executive orders to Supreme Court appointments. If Bush had spent the past four months shadow-boxing, he'd be in no shape for the main event.

McCain helped to mobilize a crucial Republican constituency. Thanks to his strident attacks on Christian Coalition head Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, religious conservatives turned out en masse.

In Ohio and Georgia, 80 percent voted for Bush. If Vice President Al Gore is dumb enough to take over where McCain left off, Christian conservatives will be encouraged not just to vote for the governor but to work their tails off.

By pushing gun registration, Gore is helping to activate another key element of the Reagan coalition.

McCain showed Bush who his friends and enemies are. Due to McCain's mixed signals on abortion, the pro-life movement coalesced behind Bush.

The National Right to Life Committee spent $340,000 on Super Tuesday alone, educating its members on the differences between the GOP candidates. In New York, voters who believe abortion should be illegal went for Bush over McCain by 70 percent to 22 percent.

It took John McCain to make this scion of the read-my-lips dynasty attractive to the right. In Ohio, conservatives choose Bush over McCain by 68 percent to 26 percent, in California by 66 percent to 26 percent.

Other than insulting his family, there isn't much more the media could do to show Bush they're not on his side. Initially, they were mildly infatuated with him. For a Republican, he didn't seem all that bad -- particularly his compassionate conservatism.

When McCain looked viable, they quickly cooled to Bush. The type of campaign the media put on for McCain (cream-puff treatment, versus current-affairs quizzes for Bush) they'll do for Gore from this point on. McCain spotlighted Bush's weaknesses. Despite his vaunted ability to attract Hispanic voters, in California's beauty contest, Bush drew only 19 percent of Hispanics to Gore's 53 percent.

In the same election, Latinos voted for Proposition 22 (banning same-sex marriages) by over 70 percent. For Bush to appeal to this growing bloc, he must make social-conservative values a centerpiece of his campaign. With his recent decision to meet with the gay Log Cabin Republicans, he's off to a bad start.

Bush also needs to do better among Roman Catholics. In California, he lost them to Gore by 32 percent to 24 percent.

Ronald Reagan could speak their language (patriotic, pro-faith, pro-family). The Bob Jones affair aside, George Bush looks and sounds like a guy who just got off the golf cart at the local country club.

The governor needs a Catholic running mate -- not a nominal one like New York Gov. George Pataki, but a committed Catholic who can duplicate Reagan's appeal for America's largest denomination.

Inadvertently, John McCain has done more for George Bush (moving him closer to the White House) than his once-bulging war chest and blue-chip Republican endorsements.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest book is Who's Afraid of the Religious Right. Comment on his column by clicking here.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate