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Jewish World Review March 6, 2000 / 29 Adar I, 5760

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McCain's appeal to 'Reagan Democrats'


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IN THE PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN of 1980, Ronald Reagan pulled a brilliant campaign stunt: He made himself a Catholic.

The transfiguration was political, not religious. Reagan didn't convert to the country's largest Christian denomination; he repositioned himself for the membership of a voting group that includes 25 percent of the country's electorate.

Reagan's gambit began with simple geography. He moved his campaign headquarters east and named as his new campaign manager a crusty New Yorker, future CIA director William Casey.

Reagan executed other cosmetic moves. Raised a non-ethnic Protestant, he began portraying himself as an Irish-American son of the great national melting pot. He had a picture taken of himself enjoying a draft beer at an Irish pub. He turned himself into the real-life George Gipp, that charismatic Notre Dame football hero he played in the movies alongside Pat O'Brien.

On Labor Day, 1980, Reagan completed the transition from Southern California success story to cultural Catholic. With the Statue of Liberty at his back, the Republican nominee donned the mantle of every ethnic group to make it through Ellis Island.

Jimmy Carter didn't stand a chance with this group, soon to be known as the "Reagan Democrats." When he competed with the Republican candidate at the traditional Al Smith Dinner, sponsored by New York's Catholics, he quickly discovered that Reagan was not just the winner of the white-tie laugh-a-thon but, worse yet, on the home team.

John McCain is now attempting the same number. Exploiting rival George Bush's Feb. 2 visit to Bob Jones University, he has painted the Texan as a pandering ally of anti-Catholic fanatics.

For three weeks Bush made it easy for McCain, refusing to apologize for starting his South Carolina campaign on a campus where Catholicism is dismissed as a "cult." He refused to admit that a symbolic visit meant to be a foothold locally had become a banana peel nationally.

Attempting to quiet things down, Gov. Bush wrote a letter of strong apology this past weekend to New York's Cardinal John O'Connor. He took the blame for not "disassociating" himself from the anti-Catholic sentiments of Bob Jones University.

Spotting weakness, McCain broadened his assault, lashing into Bush not just for the Bob Jones visit but for getting into political bed with the religious right in the first place.

"We are the party of Ronald Reagan, not Pat Robertson," he said in Virginia Beach. "My friends, I am a Reagan Republican who will defeat Al Gore. Unfortunately, Gov. Bush is a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore."

Dropped near the headquarters of the Christian Coalition, McCain's rhetorical bomb was for the benefit of Catholic voters in next Tuesday's primaries. His prime target: New York state, where Catholic discomfort with anti-Catholic bigotry is matched by an even sharper resentment toward the loud urban voices of racial anger and demand.

"Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance," McCain said on Monday, "whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell on the right."

McCain's speech is a declaration of war. From here to Philadelphia, the Republican party will be divided between Catholics and the religious right.

Unless a victorious campaign can replace the right with voters from the center, it's hard to see either candidate leading a winning coalition in November.



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.

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