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Jewish World Review March 6, 2000 /29 Adar I, 5760

Ben Wattenberg

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McCain, third party candidate? -- COULD THIS GYRATING and already bitter election year be headed for a third-party showdown? When will it all end?

George Bush had his own super Tuesday on Feb. 29, with only a few caveats. He won the open Virginia primary (but not in the metro Washington, D.C. northern-suburban areas). He won the North Dakota caucuses (which bring out small numbers of Republican regulars). He won in the Republican-only part of the Washington state primary, an important, first non-Southern victory (but lost the Independent "beauty contest" there).

Flush with victory, Bush is sounding better and looking better, talking again as the great unifier. He has some big Republican-only primaries on Super tomorrow-Tuesday, and the Tuesday after that, which give him a big leg-up. It is not a done deal. McCain has shown remarkable resilience.

Under normal circumstances such an intra-party brawl might well lead to tag-teaming: a ticket with the victor bringing aboard his challenger to run with him as vice president. Ronald Reagan did that by choosing George H. W. Bush. John Kennedy did that by choosing Lyndon Johnson.

Politicians can swallow a lot: "Ah, it was all said in the heat of battle, and anyway he's 10 times better than Al Gore..." The vice presidency is a better job than it sometimes seems, good for a 63-year-old senator if he could follow the playbook, or for a 53-year-old governor from a big state. But this race has become not only personally bitter but structurally unsound. Consider McCain's apparently intemperate remarks about Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

When McCain went to Virginia Beach to answer Robertson's ugly charges that McCain was against Christian conservatives, he quite properly and proudly bellowed, "We are the party of Ronald Reagan not Pat Robertson. We are the party of Theodore Roosevelt not the party of special interests. We are the party of Abraham Lincoln not Bob Jones. Join us. Join us." He went on: "Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance," which is fine, but then continued thusly, "whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right," which is not fine, and became the sound-bite du jour.

It is not fine for many reasons, but there is a joker in the deck. It is not true. Farrakhan is off the spectrum. Sharpton has a long public record of anti-white, anti-Semitic inflammatory statements, some of which have led to violence, for which pandering Democratic candidates will have to answer. You may agree or disagree with Robertson and Falwell, but smash-mouth incendiary bigots they are not. (Bob Jones may be another matter.) Characterizing them in that way means that a Bush-McCain ticket, or a McCain-Bush ticket, would likely lose net votes, and even a kiss-kiss convention hug would be of limited value.

McCain's statement may prove tactically sound only if he goes the third-party route. He says he would not run as an independent should he lose the Republican nomination. But as events unfold he may well be pushed to reconsider. If he does he might pull down the Republican temple, or the Democratic temple, or both, and -- who knows? -- might even win. It's been that kind of year. It's that kind of country.

In the abstract, the political observation class tends to dismiss third-party efforts. But in the spring of 1992, before it became publicly apparent that he was a head case, Ross Perot was well ahead of both President Bush and Governor Clinton in the polls. McCain's hero, Theodore Roosevelt, started the Bull Moose party and finished second of three. And we already have a special case of a president who was not from the previous main parties: Abraham Lincoln (check your history books).

(For example, consider the potential impact of a McCain-Bob Kerrey ticket or a McCain-Colin Powell ticket.)

And Bush? His campaign still seems to lack a theme. There is one out there: Republican governors. They govern in 30 states, including eight of the nine most populous. Nearly two out of three Americans are represented by Republican governors, in states that have 337 electoral votes, with only 270 needed to win the presidency.

The governors are popular and get re-elected; they are regarded as moderately conservative pragmatists, which would be pretty closely prototypical of the American electorate. Bush should not just brag on Texas; he should boast of the Republican governors, not as bossy political "firewalls," but as a collection of men and women who, like himself, have done well as centrist activists.

It will all end by November, unless there is no electoral majority, in which case it will be decided by the House of Representatives, no later than noon of Jan. 20, 2001.

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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