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Jewish World Review August 7, 2000 / 6 Menachem-Av, 5760

Chris Matthews

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Consumer Reports

The good soldier -- PHILADELPHIA | Last Wednesday afternoon I caught an American moment. In this city's cavernous 30th Street Station, I found John McCain standing in line, unattended and unnoticed, for the 1 o'clock to Washington.

No cameramen hovered. No other reporter was in sight. None of the other travelers seemed to notice him. The man who had dominated this country's political buzz for much of this winter and spring was just another guy in a suit waiting for a train.

"It's too early," McCain greets me, perhaps to explain the stark disconnect between the balloons and ballyhoo in the Republican National Convention hall the night before and the apathy so abundant around us.

"Nobody's paying attention."

But what of McCain's own attention span, I wondered? A few hours earlier he had stood before thousands of delighted delegates to endorse his "friend" George W. Bush. He had done his duty to party and country. Now, like a mustered-out sailor, his body still punished by those seven years in that Hanoi prison, he is lugging his gear back home to Washington and the Senate.

Yet even in the afterglow of his Tuesday-night endorsement, McCain is contemptuous of the Bush high command. The same tough guys who bombed him, Dresden-like, in South Carolina seem strangely hesitant to finish off Democrat Al Gore now that they have the chance.

"Bush is not smart in not starting the debates early," McCain says, hoisting a heavy garment bag to his war-mangled shoulder. Why are they waiting until October to debate the enemy? Why not now, with all the polls showing Bush has the momentum at his back?

The poignancy and distress of McCain's departure from the GOP convention this Wednesday is nothing compared to the irony of his remaining importance. Smart people in both parties know that the decisive voters this November are those most excited by McCain. They are the "ethnic" voters who live among those inner suburbs that hug Philadelphia, Detroit and Cleveland. They are the struggling class of workers worried that their limited educations will be no match for the age of high technology that now looms at their local factory gates.

Congressman John Sweeney of Clifton Park, N.Y., knows these voters because he grew up among them. They include the guy with "maybe a few years of junior college, who just learned how to operate a computer because he wants to make a living."

These are the kinds of voters who connect with John McCain. Many of them ex-servicemen and Roman Catholic, they like McCain's gritty, maverick style, his deep and obvious patriotism.

Democratic strategist James Carville noted the powerful reaction from the crowd when McCain evoked those values here Tuesday night. "This place went deathly silent," the Clinton loyalist recalled. Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska senator and fellow Vietnam vet, was also struck by the convention's powerful response to his pal McCain: "'They were hanging on every word."

Hagel told me he had never heard McCain speak so personally about himself, or so emotionally of his commitment to a Republican victory this fall. McCain's warm words for Bush "absolve a lot of rancor" of the nomination battle, he said, referring to the Texas governor's controversial visit to Bob Jones University. "This was John McCain at his best."

Hagel said that McCain's Wednesday endorsement speech "brought closure to a chapter of his political career."

"How the next chapter begins or ends depends on many things, beginning with the results on November 7." Those results could well depend on how well George Bush uses his new "friend" and champion, John McCain, in the weeks between then and now. Letting him leave Philadelphia on Wednesday, angry and discarded, was a bad move. Summoning him back Thursday to share the Convention finale was a clumsy but good one.

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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07/27/99: Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh; capitalism is gonna win

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