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Jewish World Review Feb. 25, 2000 /19 Adar I, 5760

Tony Snow

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Dubyah's missed lesson

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- GEORGE W. BUSH should have learned an important lesson when he was getting drubbed this week in Michigan: When it comes to primary politics, there is no such thing as the high road.

Bush toured the upper Midwest last weekend, fresh off a hard-won triumph in South Carolina. But rather than flexing his muscles as in Dixie, he behaved like a fop. He and his campaign shelved hard-hitting ads that put McCain on the defensive and instead stressed the Texan's sunny positives. They dodged a televised debate with McCain -- shades of New Hampshire! -- and, instead, Bush cooed that he smelled victory.

The sequence made the man appear loopy, like the professional boxer who, several years ago, had an epiphany in the ring and began to hug his opponent, weeping and talking of love. (Authorities sent the pugilist to the nut house.)

Compare and contrast this with the demeanor of McCain. After losing in South Carolina, McCain delivered a sharp-tongued threat to his chief opponent: Put up your dukes or else. The senator was testy, confrontational and ungracious about losing. He had no interest in making a virtue of defeat. He was determined to win -- and to emerge not merely sanctified but deified.

He accused Bush of dirty campaigning, of being an empty suit, of presenting himself to the public under false pretenses. He jabbed out each accusation as if he were stabbing a voodoo doll. While prim members of the press found the performance too bitter for their tastes, voters had a different take: They saw somebody who came to conquer, not to pose.

McCain barnstormed Michigan. He hit Bush hard in speeches, while his staff orchestrated phone calls accusing Bush of anti-Catholic bigotry. That, of course, is precisely the kind of negativity McCain claims to abhor. But his guys fought hard. At times, they fought dirty. And they won.

McCain understands that politics normally relies on one of three kinds of fuel: great ideas, great enemies or national threats. But these are not normal times: What Americans most want now is Not Bill Clinton -- somebody who will defend traditional morals and won't quiver in fear of Clintonism, as Capitol Hill Republicans have for much of the last five years.

Democrats scoff at the idea of Clinton malaise, but consider the evidence: Republican primaries produced record turnouts in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan. Independents voted in droves.

Contrary to spin from the Bush camp, this isn't primarily a Democratic set-up. Many non-Republican primary voters are showing up because they care. Bush carried only two congressional districts in Michigan and lost in parts of the normally congenial western half of the state. Urban turnout was actually down from 1996, which means that Dubya got pole axed in suburbs that should have been his Happy Hunting Grounds.

Team Bush has repeated the fatal mistake of President Bush's 1992 re-election bid. It has become comfortable with the idea of mathematical inevitability.
Just as the ex-president and his aides let Gulf War approval ratings blind them to changes in the electorate, Dubya's campaign team has deluded itself into believing that fund-raising and organization are destiny: If you sign up the right people and raise enough dough, the nomination will come. Bush lieutenants eagerly regale listeners with factoids about the invincibility of people who raise the most money by December of the year before an election, of the historical record of those who enjoy support from two dozen or more governors, and so on.

But statistics have no talismanic powers, and voters want something one doesn't normally get from a balance sheet. They want a pulse. McCain is all pulse and impulse and repulse.

Some days, Bush shows up as a fighter; other days, he masquerades as the prom king. The electorate doesn't know whether to consider him a lightweight, a visionary or a tough guy. Voters are virtually begging him to provide reasons to vote for him, only to hear him recite phrases from his now-stale stump speech. No wonder he and inner circle are haunted by the possibility of joining John Connolly and Phil Gramm as Texans who outraised their opponents but didn't light a fire under voters.

The contest in weeks ahead will hinge on something quite simple. If Bush remains passive, he loses. If he gets aggressive, he wins. If he wins, he will have to beg McCain to join the ticket. If he loses, he shouldn't wait for a call from the senator. McCain will be too busy jabbing his Al Gore doll.

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