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Jewish World Review Feb. 18, 2000 / 12 Adar I, 5760

Chris Matthews

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McCain faces fury of GOP establishment


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- GREENVILLE, S.C. - John McCain stands at the eye of the hurricane.

"We're going to take the influence of big money and special interests out of Washington," he said here at Clemson University on Wednesday.

"We're going to break the iron triangle of money, lobbyists and legislation, and give the government back to these young people. They're the ones that deserve it, and they're going to get it when I'm president of the United States."

Surrounding the bantam senator and former Vietnam POW on the TV-lit stage were hundreds of applauding, gung-ho students.

But they are not the hurricane, merely the voices trying their damnedest to rise above it.

A more menacing storm of anger belts through South Carolina these days before the Feb. 19 primary. It's the wild and angry forces of the GOP establishment. It's the Republicans McCain's insurgent campaign has threatened and aroused. It's composed of the Republican big shots from the U.S. Senate and every state capital. It's the corporate power boys who don't mind paying the toll in D.C. as long as they get value for it. It's the country-club types Mommy and Daddy taught from birth to bar the door to mavericks like McCain.

This battle, the lonely rebel against the long-powerful party establishment, is the high drama of the South Carolina primary. The story line is worthy of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

Just as in the old movie, the machine is fighting back. Each day down here the newspapers and airwaves carry the Republican power boys' continuing fusillade: "McCain's no better than us," cry the Bush loyalists. "He's chairman of a Senate committee. He, too, is a Washingtonian!"

But McCain's great edge in this fight for the Republican presidential nomination is that he looks nothing like the fellow his rivals describe. A Navy pilot in Vietnam, he endured 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war and returned with honor. A U.S. senator from Arizona, he is best known for his fights against big tobacco and his championship of campaign finance reform.

McCain's best advertisement for his relative cleanliness is, of course, the cotillion of enemies he has recruited:

  • The tobacco companies now running TV ads to defeat him in the primary here Feb. 19.

  • The Senate leaders and fund-raisers who fight any attempt to drain the sewer money from American elections.

  • The D.C. lobbyists who denounce the challenger on Sunday television.

  • The country-club types who embrace George W. Bush for no better reason than his breeding.

Against these forces, McCain has formed a new legion of political independents: reform-minded, romantic-hearted Republicans, political independents, and, yes, Democrats too desperate for a hero to let political correctitude detain them.

Being a real-life figure rather than one confected by Hollywood, this hero has his flaws. Citing states' rights, he refuses to attack the Confederate battle flag flying over the South Carolina capitol, though he is willing to call "crazy" a recent Vermont decision saying laws cannot discriminate against same-sex couples.

A man of no recognizable prejudice, he nonetheless defends the "don't ask, don't tell" rule for military service by gays.

Despite his tone of conciliation and moderation on abortion rights, he still gives lip-service to its abolition.

Even on the issue upon which he has founded his campaign, McCain stands a tad tainted. He rightly condemns the "iron triangle" of lobbyists who raise money for politicians, then return with clients asking for special consideration. Yet he wrongly continues to raise money from the same chauffeur-driven, car-phoning motorcade of tanned, slicked-back operators who roam Washington's infamous "Gucci gulch."

"If they want to give me money, that's fine," he confesses to the charge of taking lobbyist money, "but that doesn't mean that I'm doing anything for them. My message is clear. If they don't get it, they've been on Mars!"

Like young Jefferson Smith of movie lore, he now feels the white heat reserved for those to dare to challenge a political machine. Watching to see who buckles first, this man McCain or the Republican electoral machine, has given us the highest political drama since the 1960s.



JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

Up


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10/21/99: GOP gives Clinton his finest hour
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10/04/99: Buchanan, Churchill and Hitler
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09/27/99: Here's a millennial checklist for candidates
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09/13/99: The man with the sun on his face
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08/11/99: Hillary's agonizing attempts to understand
08/09/99: With warm regards, Richard Nixon
08/04/99: Weicker: real third party is on the Left
08/02/99: Dubyah's last hangover
07/27/99: Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh; capitalism is gonna win

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