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Jewish World Review Feb. 8, 2000 / 2 Adar I, 5760

Cal Thomas

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Who wants it more? --
RICHARD NIXON observed there are two reasons why people run for high office in America: "those who want to do big things and those who want to be big people.''

Sen. John McCain clearly wants to do big things. Like it or not, his agenda includes destroying the political establishment as we've known it. He thinks big money hurts politics, contributes to the general cynicism and nonparticipation among many citizens -- and he is unafraid to run on a platform of honesty and integrity, however hypocritical that might seem as he solicits contributions and airplane rides from the very lobbyists he denounces.

McCain is drawing large and enthusiastic crowds in South Carolina because they're hungry for red meat, not the tepid oatmeal dished out after focus grouping, and he's not afraid to give it to them. He's announced that Colin Powell and William Bennett will be Cabinet members in a McCain administration, though he hasn't said whether they've been asked, and he brags, "I can beat Al Gore like a drum. I eagerly look forward to the combat. The old fighter pilot in me is coming out.'' McCain understands that politics is blood sport.

He appears unafraid of being called harsh or mean-spirited, two words that have sent other Republican "leaders'' running behind the political equivalent of their mother's skirts. Referring to attacks by Gore on Sen. Bill Bradley, McCain vowed to immediately retaliate against any shots from Gore: "If he said we're trying to hurt minorities, we'll fire back with every barrel we have. I won't stand for that .... Smile, relax, attack. That's his M.O. If I'm the nominee, we're going to have to be fully prepared. There's going to be blood all over the place.''

Now that's real politics, and it shows an understanding of what Republicans face if they mean to retake the White House. Democrats will do anything to maintain their hold on the presidency. McCain gets it. Does George W. Bush?

You can blame the press for pumping up McCain, but Bush must show he can defeat McCain in order to bolster his party's confidence that he can beat Gore. In fact, McCain is a much better sparring partner for Bush than Bradley is for Gore. If Bush continues to demonstrate weakness against McCain, it becomes increasingly apparent he won't be able to prevail over Gore in head-on debates.

Former Texas Gov. John Connally said that you must have "fire in the belly'' to successfully run for president. It is increasingly apparent that McCain has that fire. It is not yet apparent whether any combustible material lies in Bush's stomach. The McCain crowds are boisterous, excited and large. South Carolina Democrats -- those "Reagan Democrats'' -- are starting to come McCain's way. At a rally in Florence, The State newspaper reported several former Democratic office holders showed up, announcing they felt disenfranchised as Democrats and planned to vote for McCain in the Feb. 19 primary.

McCain speaks constantly about integrity and how he will appoint people with maximum amounts of that scarce commodity should he become president. The pledge speaks for itself.
People know the Clinton White House couldn't get arrested on charges of integrity because they don't possess even a gram of that substance.

The Bush people are regrouping. They thought their money was enough to guarantee a lock on the nomination. Another Texan, Sen. Phil Gramm, was similarly self-deluded when he ran for president in 1996. Gramm had $25 million in the bank, but was clobbered by Pat Buchanan in a Louisiana contest in which Gramm expected to capture all 21 delegates. He won only eight. Eight days later in Iowa, Gramm finished fifth. Two days after that he withdrew from the race.

The trumpeted inevitability of George Bush now faces a similar test. If he's up to it, he can probably be trusted to beat Gore. If he's not up to it, he won't beat Gore, even if he manages to win the nomination. The momentum is shifting to McCain. Let's see if Bush has the smarts and the steel to stop him in South Carolina. Both men say they want to be president. The question is, who wants it more?

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