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Jewish World Review Feb. 15, 2000 /9 Adar I, 5760

Ben Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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Play it again, Cinderella -- SHOULD SEN. JOHN MCCAIN become the Republican nominee and then become president it would be a Cinderella story, a once-in-a-lifetime shot, an implausible rags to riches tale. After all, who was John McCain a year ago?

Fact is, many, perhaps most, recent presidents and nominees got to be nominee or president via the Cinderella route. Who was Jimmy Carter? Who was Bill Clinton? Who heard of Harry Truman a year before he became president?

Who was Michael Dukakis? Who was Barry Goldwater? Who heard of Adlai Stevenson? In a somewhat different situation, wasn't Ronald Reagan just a washed-up right-wing movie actor? And how do you figure Dwight Eisenhower, who never served a day in elected office until he became president?

Even though writing a column is a trade with absolutely no accountability, I do not intend today to say flat-out that John McCain will be the next president. I will say that if I were a betting man, which I am, that's how I would bet, if I got good odds. (Does such obfuscation qualify me to run for high office?)

How would such a Cinderella scenario work? Visualizing the inauguration of President John McCain is a stretch unless the visualizer understands some of the changed rules of this very special Cinderella road.

Understand that money doesn't matter nearly as much as it did just a few weeks ago. Right now McCain has more "functional money" than George W. Bush. The covers of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report are not for sale; they are priceless, and this week McCain owns them all. McCain's campaign says that more than $5 million in contributions have come in since the New Hampshire primary victory. Much of that money has arrived via credit card on the Internet, which yields instant cash and creates huge lists of potential volunteer workers.

Understand that attacking John McCain as a crypto-liberal, an anti-conservative, a veritable closet commie -- won't work. McCain has indeed taken some positions that irritate some professional Republicans, but for the most part these are not necessarily anti-conservative. Take tax cuts. McCain's proposed cut is smaller than Bush's. But the idea of fiscal prudence, budget-balancing and debt-reduction has a long conservative pedigree, in recent times from Robert A. Taft to Bob Dole until his election field conversion in 1996. Or take McCain's tough anti-tobacco company position. Do conservatives favor lung cancer? Do Republicans favor lung cancer? Noooo. But Republican officeholders do get more tobacco money than do Democratic officeholders.

McCain brags about high conservative voting ratings. I checked; he's not that conservative. I'd classify him as a moderate conservative, which is also where I'd put Bush, and the American electorate.

Understand that when a governor, a high elected official or a "machine boss" says he can "organize" and "deliver" his "firewall" state for a foundering candidate, those visions don't necessarily apply in national Cinderella campaigns. This is a country that has trouble delivering mail, let alone votes. The legendary Democratic "boss" Bob Strauss had it just right when he allowed that he couldn't even deliver his wife's vote.

Understand that Cinderella campaigns excite voters and bring them to the polls. In recent presidential primaries, only about 10 percent of South Carolina voters turned out. Speaking of betting, I'd like to offer readers five dollars for every point under 10 percent turnout in this year's South Carolina election. All I want is one dollar for every point over 10 percent.

The extra voters will likely split disproportionately for McCain.

But politics is not the sound of one hand clapping. If George W. Bush were an incompetent candidate, or even a mediocre one, his goose would be pre-cooked. He is not; he is a good candidate, with good ideas, with a campaign that made mistakes but does not intend to make them a second time. McCain will be attacked by opponents. He will be subject to new scrutiny by the press, who have so far regarded him as Iowa farmers regard ethanol. We too are a needy tribe deserving of a subsidy -- an interesting candidate.

Still, strange as it may seem at this early date, the question is whether Bush will have a full-blown second chance. Might McCain already have the glass slipper? Might the pumpkin already have been retrofitted into a glittering coach? Or think of McCain as a fleet running back who breaks a single tackle and looks up to see, miraculously -- an open field. (McCain is now running even with Bush in Michigan!)

Should McCain win the GOP nomination he will most likely face Vice President Albert Gore (alas, Bill Bradley seems to have barely missed his Cinderella moment). Of Gore, the word I recently heard that describes his campaign persona is "unctuous."

In a McCain-Gore match-up, McCain wins. That completes the Cinderella cycle.

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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