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Jewish World Review Jan. 12, 2000 /5 Shevat, 5760

David Limbaugh

David Limbaugh
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Media's McCain
efforts may backfire -- EARLY ON in the presidential campaign, George W. Bush's phenomenal popularity was being met with much resistance from the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Isn't it odd, then, that his closest competitor is challenging him from the left? Not when you consider the media's role in Senator McCain's campaign.

Many say that McCain's relative popularity was inevitable considering that most of Bush's other remaining opponents, Forbes, Keyes and Bauer, are dividing the more conservative voters. There's more to it than that.

Could it be that despite voters' distrust of politicians they are more willing to entrust the office of the presidency to those who have previously held a substantial elective office? Perhaps, but then how do you explain Steve Forbes' performance to date in Iowa?

In the first place, McCain's ascension to the number two GOP spot is grounded more in perception than reality -- a perception carefully crafted by the major media. True, McCain has risen dramatically in New Hampshire to the point of overtaking Bush.

Looking beyond New Hampshire, McCain is largely struggling. Nationwide, Bush leads him 63 to 13 percent -- that's five to one. McCain himself even acknowledges that his only chance is to win in New Hampshire and hope that sparks a momentum in the following primaries.

But New Hampshire is no longer a bellwether -- several recent victors there have failed to capture the nomination. There's a reason for that and for McCain's popularity there.

New Hampshire now has more Independents than either Republicans or Democrats. Bush is trouncing McCain among the Republicans. But McCain is made to order for the Independents. His maverick pronouncements decrying the corruption of the system are glorious music to those disenchanted with that system. And those Independents apparently view themselves as just that: independent. They will not have the likes of George Bush crammed down their throats by the establishment.

But even considering McCain's natural appeal to the Independents of New Hampshire, his campaign was floundering until the national media came to his rescue. The media's love affair with McCain has been no secret. Until a week ago it appeared that they were acting in concert to boost the Arizona senator's campaign.

No, I'm not saying that the influential media players sat down in some smoke-filled room and entered into a conspiracy on behalf of McCain. But if they had, their behavior would be indistinguishable from what it has actually been.

Just when it seemed that Bush was invincible, McCain emerged out of nowhere and started to get traction in New Hampshire. Money couldn't buy the favorable press McCain was receiving from all the major media outlets. In fact, McCain's meteoric rise with the benefit of this media coverage is proof enough that his media-empowering campaign finance reform proposal is dangerous.

Some would argue that the media propped him up because they were bored with the absence of a contest on the Republican side. I think it's more likely that they approved of what McCain was saying. In addition to promising them more power through McCain-Feingold, he was calling all Republicans corrupt and hypocritical and vocally promoting several popular liberal causes. Plus, front-runner George Bush had stopped criticizing Republicans, was an entrepreneur and mentioned Jesus Christ too often.

Ironically, the media's efforts on behalf of Senator McCain may end up backfiring as a result of unintended consequences. Bush's greatest problem has been his inability to convince the grass roots of his party that he is conservative enough.

McCain's anti-conservative rhetoric has made Bush look quite conservative by contrast. Having tasted the intoxicating flavor of his New Hampshire poll numbers McCain may be unable to resist intensifying that rhetoric.

In recent debates, McCain has sounded as much like Clinton on tax reform as he has on campaign finance reform and anti-tobacco legislation. He accused Bush of tilting his tax plan to benefit the rich, stating that 60 percent of his tax cut goes to the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans "who don't need it."

Regardless of whether McCain squeaks through in New Hampshire his liberal friendly tone is unlikely to yield much fruit beyond the Granite State. But by using it he and the media may have unwittingly played into Dubya's right hand.

JWR contributor David Limbaugh is an attorney practicing in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and a political analyst and commentator. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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08/16/99: 'W' stands for 'winner'
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