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

Ben Wattenberg

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Prairie fires -- SO, THE BIG POLITICAL SHOW continues, and that's very good, for the four candidates, and for America.

Had McCain lost to George Bush, the cash-poor McCain would have been out of business. He didn't; he isn't. Now, the Republican carny moves on to South Carolina on Feb. 19. Bill Bradley did lose, but only barely, and his poll numbers swelled when he finally equated Al Gore with Pinocchio. Bradley has the cash and the message to go on to the huge 14-state Big Enchilada on March 7, which may well prove to be the functional equivalent of a national primary for Democrats.

One can sense why these results are so positive by considering the disillusionment that would have been pervasive had the opposite results been obtained. Sooo many voters would have grumbled, "the fix is in..." George W. Bush? It would have been said that Bush's early close-out was nothing more than "an establishment coronation," a mere "restoration" by President Bush's cash-heavy son, a charming young fellow but not yet ready for heavy lifting. Al Gore? He would be described as the hand-picked heir of Bill Clinton, Prince Albert of Embassy Row, Roboman pushed over the line by big labor, even as he was caught, several times, saying things that cannot truthfully be described as truthful. And in such scenarios, who would have been deprived of a role in helping pick the nominees? The public, that's who.

I am reminded of the sage views of one of America's most distinguished election experts, Richard M. Scammon, my collaborator on several books. Dick repeatedly made the point that the primary election was one of the great American contributions to democratic theory -- precisely because it put voters in the middle of the nomination process, which is not the custom in the party-oriented democracies of Europe.

Scammon's wisdom is apparent today, for all four of the leading candidates. Should Bush prevail, should Gore prevail, they will have been legitimated by the only proper legitimators, Americans who go into a voting booth and cast their ballots. Both Bush and Gore remain the front-runners. But do not be fooled by those who say that New Hampshire is a fluky and untypical state -- too liberal, too white, too independent, too funky, too spoiled, too likely to vote. The corollary to that is that later contests will revert to candidates with organization and endorsements, which will help them win in allegedly more typical states, which serve as "firewalls" against political prairie fires.

Mostly baloney. New Hampshire voters are American voters, and the more you study American election data the more surprised you are at how much American voters share common values and perceptions, from sea to shining sea. When a candidate captures the American imagination he leaps firewalls in a single bound.

There is a peculiar dynamic at work now. McCain won big, yet his race may be tougher than Bradley's, because his competitor is tougher. Contrary to received wisdom, George W. Bush was not anointed front-runner through the divine right of kings. He was anointed by the most successful, popular and vigorous part of the Republican party -- the moderate and pragmatic GOP Governors who hold elective office in 30 states with 70 percent of the population. They devoutly want to see a Republican in the White House, and they picked someone they knew and respected, personally, politically and ideologically. (Haven't you noticed that no other Republican governor is running for president?) Bush is an appealing candidate, with a good theme, getting better.

Still, for now, McCain is Cinderella happening. He will be mythic in a moment, in a game where a myth is better than a mile. I don't agree with one central premise of his campaign, that special interests run America, but from his mouth it comes out as a vibrant and constructive message, not destructive. Listening to the remarks of each of the candidates after the New Hampshire primary, it is clear why, for now at least, McCain is the class of the field, the only serious adult at work. And, to top it off, there's a big entertainment bonus coming up as South Carolina approaches: The attempt to paint war hero, hawk, fiscally cautious McCain as a left-leaning, big-government, crypto-liberal will lend an air of high comedy to an otherwise serious enterprise.

Bradley, who lost only by a nose, is a solid man with solid ideas, but not yet demonstrably in the league of super-star McCain. But he does have the advantage of running against a candidate who is, as simply as I can put it, grating. That's so even when he tells the truth. I am in a distinct minority I know, but I do not find it implausible to think the Gore campaign will implode.

All this, with lots more to come, because the people finally spoke.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may comment by clicking here.

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