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

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South Carolina Waterloo


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- COMPARATIVELY, last week was the worst Sen. John McCain has had in several months. It wasn't just that his extraordinary, and earned, New Hampshire "bounce" was spent; or that a fraction of the mainstream press was releasing stories critical of the "reformer's" coziness with lobbyists and corporate donors; or that his polling numbers in South Carolina were slipping. It certainly wasn't his loss in the Delaware primary on Feb. 8, where the Senator placed second, far behind Gov. George W. Bush, although without even campaigning he knocked out Steve Forbes.

As McCain himself said, he doesn't even look out the window at Delaware while riding the Metroliner from New York to DC. And, as GOP consultant Tony Fabrizio told The Wall Street Journal last week about the Delaware results: "This is one of those instances where a win is not a win for George W. Bush. Once again, he's underestimated the power of McCain's message." I don't quite understand how a victory in a primary demonstrates that Bush isn't aware of the "McCain Swoon," but Fabrizio gets paid by somebody to spin like that.

Where McCain went wrong last week was in airing an attack ad that compared Bush to Bill Clinton, one that featured the tag line, "Do we really want another politician in the White House we can't trust?" That woke the Texas Governor up. Finally. GOP Wise Man William Bennett, who's remained neutral, said: "Hardly anyone falls in Bill Clinton's class.

It's not straight. It's not right. It was about as low-road as you can get. It diminishes particularly the man who says 'I'm not going to be negative.'" McCain knew he was out of bounds and that's why he piously pulled all negative advertising last Friday, and called on Bush to do the same. The Arizonan, his decision obviously dictated by internal polling, said: "We will put up positive ads. We will run no attack or response or any other kind of negative advertising for the rest of this campaign... I hope [Bush] will recognize the damage this kind of thing does to the electorate."

Bush respectfully declined McCain's advice on advertising. He said: "It's a bait-and-switch trick. He runs ads for 18 days defining me as something I'm not then, all of a sudden says, 'OK, let's all quit.' My ads are to make sure that I clarify exactly who I am and what I believe."

Instead, Bush put up a new ad that said, "Politics is tough, but when John McCain compared me to Bill Clinton and said I was untrustworthy, that's over the line. Disagree with me, fine, but do not challenge my integrity."

The intensity of the South Carolina battle was amped up last Thursday at a McCain rally in Spartanburg, where one of the Senator's supporters, Donna Duren, claimed that her 14-year-old son had been push-polled the day before. The voice at the other end allegedly told the boy, who is an admirer of McCain, that the Senator is "a cheat and a liar and a fraud." Duren said she was "so livid last night I couldn't sleep."

The real McCain?
In Friday's Washington Post, reporters Dan Balz and Dana Milbank wrote that "McCain was visibly upset by Duren's story and promised to call her son later today." McCain then took advantage of the incident to hold a news conference, in which he said: "I'm calling on my good friend George Bush to stop this now. Stop this now. He comes from a better family. He knows better than this. He should stop it. I'll pull down every negative ad that I have... Let's treat voters of South Carolina with some respect."

Not surprisingly, the media assumed that Bush was the culprit in this controversy, even though the candidate denied it, released phone transcripts of the calls his campaign was making and said he'd fire anyone who engaged in that sort of practice.

Not one reporter even questioned the possibility that Duren's heart-wrenching story was a setup, or that the push poll was conducted by a person in the McCain campaign. Maybe that's too cynical, but McCain's right-hand man, Mike Murphy, is a shrewd consultant-for-hire. As with any of these vultures-Dick Morris and Robert Shrum are only the most extreme examples-morals mean little: they sign up with a candidate who can pay and possibly win. After Murphy's stint with Lamar Alexander in '96, you know he's hungry for a potentially lucrative victory.

However, a far more plausible scenario is that if the call really did take place, it was orchestrated by the Al Gore War Room. The whole incident just reeks of James Carville and Bill Clinton.

The Post reporters later phoned McCain and said he was "still unsettled." The Senator told them: "Frankly, it's the first time in the campaign that I've been a little rattled. Because of the way the woman spoke about it and the harm it did her son. That's not what political campaigns are supposed to be about. When a boy who is a Boy Scout gets subjected to it."

Yes, that's a three-hanky quote.

In the Feb./March George, Phoenix New Times staff writer Amy Silverman, who's covered McCain for six years, tells a story about her state's senator, under the headline "Warning: Don't Fall in Love with This Man." Back in 1994, Silverman was "floored" by the immediate access she got to McCain, for an article she was working on about local Republican politics. Like Beltway reporters, she got a tour of the McCain household and was asked to accompany the Senator for the day, rather than the hour she expected at most.

George's warning
They drove to Tucson, "safe and cozy in a minivan piloted by the senator," for a radio show McCain was appearing on. Silverman writes: "What a cool guy. He answered all my questions, joked around, and even volunteered information I hadn't requested." When they arrived at the radio station, Silverman describes McCain, with "huge black headphones over his white comb-over," taking questions from listeners. "At one point," she writes, "he took a call from an elderly woman named Rosemary, who was terrified about nuclear proliferation. McCain was sweet and solicitous. 'You make some excellent points, Rosemary, and I wish that everybody were as concerned about the issue as you are.'"

McCain then took a commercial break and spoke to Silverman, "his new friend." She continues: "Then McCain sneered-a really mean sneer-and said with animosity, 'I believe that Rosemary has a bumper sticker that says VISUALIZE WORLD PEACE.' And then he laughed.

"I wasn't so sure I wanted to be the guy's best friend anymore. And the feeling apparently became mutual after my story came out. McCain and his staff didn't answer my requests for information for the next five years."

More significantly, however, is that McCain's demeanor has changed since the first days of his phenomenal victory in New Hampshire. Look at his eyes-he's tired, testy and ready to blow a fuse. As every political pundit has said in the last week, describing the carnage in South Carolina, politics ain't beanbag. Whatever that means. Here's a problem McCain can't ignore: public anger is his Achilles' heel. Because of his reputation as a hothead who can't work with other legislators, a man whose temper is legendary, McCain can't afford to say what's really on his mind. It's the reverse for Rudy Giuliani. New York City's mayor is an idiot and everybody knows it. He's a selfish demagogue who's incapable of sharing credit with anyone else. Rudy's a jerk, but he's made the city a safer place in which to live, work and visit. Therefore, because voters already know the Mayor's bound to say something stupid or self-aggrandizing, they'll shrug it off, with a "That's Rudy for you. Get me another beer."

Even McCain's media surrogates are less jovial these days. The detestable Larry King hosted a riotous session on his CNN show last Tuesday that included Carville, Bush supporter Ralph Reed and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, a vocal McCain advocate.

King
King asked Carville which candidate he'd rather oppose in the fall, Bush or McCain. Carville: "I'm looking you right in the camera-red rover, red rover, send either one of them right over. That's what I say. I say take the record of these last seven years... We're ready to go... Al Gore is going to be the next president of the United States. We're going to run an aggressive campaign. Let these clowns go over there and beat each other up. I don't care."

Kristol, for once losing his Cheshire cat grin, was not happy on this program, as is evident from the following exchange with Carville.

Carville: What are the three signature McCain accomplishments in the United States Senate? Do you want to go through them for us real quick, after 17 years?

Kristol: Yes. He was de facto secretary of state of the United States during the Kosovo war.

JC: When?

BK: And he did more than President Clinton, I'm afraid, to ensure that the U.S. won it.

JC: I don't know how to tell you-I don't know how to tell you this.

Larry King: One at a time.

JC: What's his accomplishment? He opposed the war that we won. That's an accomplishment. I'm sorry, that don't pass the laugh test, Bill. Give me three accomplishments.

BK: James, you know-James, if you were telling the truth-James, if Larry could make you tell the truth-and I wish he could...

JC: I asked you what his accomplishments...

BK: ...you are terrified of facing John McCain.

JC: ...Bill, would you just give the three signature accomplishments of 17 years in the United States Congress of John McCain?

BK: Look, I'm not the spokesman...

Larry King: OK. He won't give you the accomplishments, and you won't admit you're terrified. OK.

Then Reed jumped in, which visibly irritated Kristol. (Earlier, Reed had said: "I don't find myself agreeing with James Carville very often on anything, but I do have to say that I certainly agree with his diagnosis of McCain. I mean, the guy has been in Washington for 17 years. He has been an insider. He's been a committee chairman. He's one of the most powerful men in Washington, and he has little or nothing to show for it. His two signature issues are campaign finance reform, which he's not been able to pass, and a tobacco bill that he's not been able to pass.")

Reed: Larry, can I respond to what Bill said. First of all, John McCain's the one with the Washington ZIP code, and Bill Kristol's the one with the Washington ZIP code here. I'm in Atlanta. Gov. Bush is from Austin, TX. We're not the Washington insiders. That's first of all.

Second of all, if you want to know where all the Washington lobbyists are, they're going to be at a half-million-dollar fundraiser for John McCain in two nights...

"And in addition to that, [McCain's] campaign finance reform is a hog's trough for special interests. It gives power and control to Washington left-wing union bosses. And in fact, I want to quote a magazine called The Weekly Standard, Bill's magazine. This is what they said, not me.

This is what Bill's magazine said about John McCain's campaign finance reform, the centerpiece of his campaign. They said, quote, 'It's ugly, foolish and blatantly unconstitutional.' Those are The Weekly Standard's words, not mine."


JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press (www.nypress.com). Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2000, Russ Smith