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Jewish World Review Feb. 15, 2000 /9 Adar I, 5760

Morton Kondracke

Kondracke
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Will negativity hurt McCain in S.C.?


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- LAST LABOR DAY, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wanted to know from his pollster why his tireless efforts in New Hampshire still were giving him only 5 percent of the vote.

Bill McInturff recalls telling McCain, "You're missing your progress. Your favorables and name ID are going through the roof, and that's got to happen before your ballot numbers change."

But McInturff cautioned his candidate that Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) had favorable poll ratings in the 80s, meaning it would take time to catch up.

McInturff thought it would take until Jan. 1 for McCain to pull within 10 points of Bush. "If we're within 10 on Jan. 1, we'll win" on Feb. 7, he says he told McCain in September 1999.

"Instead," the pollster recalls now, "by mid-October, without running a single ad, John was scoring in the mid-20s. After one ad, in mid-December, we were ahead."

What produced the original surge -- and keeps it going -- is the impression among voters that McCain has the "character and courage" to stare down Congress and reform Washington.

Of course, McCain ended up winning New Hampshire by 19 points -- a somewhat bigger victory than McInturff expected. Independents, representing 42 percent of the vote, went for McCain over Bush by 60 to 20 percent.

But McInturff did accurately foresee in late October what would happen if McCain won in New Hampshire -- it would set loose a media frenzy and financial groundswell that would put his candidate in shape to do well in South Carolina Feb. 19, Michigan and Arizona Feb. 22 and nationally on March 7.

"The media filter will change from `Bush the happy front-runner' to `What doubts do people have about George Bush?'" McInturff predicted.

And it's happened. Post-New Hampshire, McCain was on the cover of all the news magazines. Polls indicate he's neck and neck with Bush in South Carolina and Michigan.

But now the tone of the race has completely changed. "The Bush people tried `This is a contest between two candidates you can like' and lost that one by 19 points. Now, it's totally `Trash this guy,'" McInturff said.

McCain advisers hope Bush's attacks on the senator will look desperate and over the top, and will enlist media and voter sympathy as "the real guy the special interests are beating up on."

But they admit there's a danger that the sheer volume of Bush's attacks could raise doubts about McCain among independents and depress their willingness to turn out for him.

There's also a danger that McCain's own harsh attacks on Bush -- ads accuse Bush of "twisting the truth like Clinton" -- will tarnish his good-guy image and turn off independents.

Usually around a quarter to a third of the GOP vote in South Carolina comes from self-described independents. If that number rises to 40 percent, it should produce a McCain victory -- and a break in Bush's "firewall."

In Michigan, similarly, polls indicate a dead heat, assuming that a third of the GOP primary vote comes from crossover Democrats and independents -- indicating a McCain victory if the proportion is larger. The Bush campaign has started calling McCain a "hypocrite" on campaign finance because he takes money from lobbyists with business before his Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Bush plans to propose a ban on transfers from one campaign account to another. His aides charge that McCain is double-collecting from lobbyists through his Senate and presidential campaigns.

Bush's proposals, following a speech Wednesday on national tort reform, are part of a campaign designed to prove that Bush has produced reform "results" in Texas.

McInturff says what he's hoping for on Feb. 19 is a victory "by 10 votes at 2 a.m." After that, "we'll carry Arizona and do well in Michigan."

And then, on Feb. 29, Virginia and Washington also have primaries open to Democrats and independents. If McCain scores a string of victories -- especially in the open primary March 7 in California -- McInturff thinks polls will show McCain can beat Vice President Al Gore, while Bush cannot.

"Then those 175 members of Congress who support Bush will abandon him," he predicts. "They want to stay a majority in Congress and won't stick with a loser."



JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

Up

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10/05/99: Gore moves: Desperate but necessary
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09/15/99: Bush's education problem
09/09/99: Budget makes 2000 an `issues' election
09/07/99:Airport rage increases, with good reason
09/02/99: U.S. future up for grabs in 2000
08/31/99: U.S. Capitol needs visitor's center -- soon
08/24/99: Will 2000 be the year of the foreign crisis?
08/19/99: Neither party has upper hand for '99
08/17/99: Ford gets freedom medal one month early
08/12/99: There's time to catch Bush, say Gore aides
08/10/99: Rudy, Hillary try much-needed makeovers
08/09/99: GOP must launch new probe of Chinagate
08/02/99: Pols blow fiscal smoke on budget surplus
08/02/99: One campaign reform should pass: disclosure
07/27/99: Gore leads Bush in policy proposals

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