The Washington Times

It’s hard to imagine a mightier blow to the Republican establishment than the one John McCain delivered in New Hampshire Tuesday. We now have a real and surprising experiment under way – whether a party establishment actually does have a decisive say in who wins the party’s nomination.

The erstwhile George W. Bush juggernaut had it all: vast sums of money; all the Republican governors and most of the Washington Republican Party establishment; most of the Republican brains trust; a campaign organization that was as good as most observers had ever seen; and a seemingly attractive candidate with a great Republican family name, a proven ability to attract voters beyond the party base and a large and constant lead in head-to-head polls with the likely Democratic nominee. What has changed since Tuesday? Not the money, not the institutional Republican support, not the brains trust – just the assumptions about the candidate and the campaign.

The most troubling thing about Mr. Bush and New Hampshire was not even the result. It was, instead, Mr. Bush’s public pronouncement, the very day Republican primary voters there were rejecting him by an 18-point margin, that he was going to win. Add as well the briefing key Bush campaign advisers put on for members of Congress some weeks ago purporting to demonstrate that, notwithstanding an emerging McCain lead in the polls in New Hampshire, Mr. Bush would win. The Bush team pointed out, among other things, that Mr. McCain would be laboring under spending limits he had to agree to in order to receive federal matching funds, whereas the Bush campaign would be free to spend whatever it would take to defeat Mr. McCain.

Mr. Bush has brimmed with self-confidence since he declared himself a candidate: “I am running for president of the United States. There’s no turning back, and I intend to be the next president of the United States,” he said in June. For many Republicans, the certitude was reassuring: As Mr. Bush was the inevitable nominee, so he would inevitably beat Al Gore or Bill Bradley.

The cumulative impression from a huge New Hampshire loss in the wake of promises of New Hampshire victory is that neither the candidate nor the campaign knows what is going on. It is one thing to talk up one’s prospects; quite another to do so in a fashion that demonstrates one is clueless about what they actually are. The perfectly confident, perfectly erroneous New Hampshire predictions of 2000 bring to mind the behind-the-scenes assurances President George Bush gave to his staff in 1992 about his complete confidence in his re-election.

Mr. McCain has taken the first step in cracking the establishment consensus by beating Mr. Bush and the second step by surprising him. Where once was a carefully cultivated impression of Bush inevitability, now there is doubt at all levels.

Is Mr. Bush really so formidable against Mr. Gore or, for that matter, Mr. Bradley? Some polls were closing even before New Hampshire. Also, never mind the surge of independent support for Mr. McCain: Why didn’t Mr. Bush do better in New Hampshire with his traditional Republican message among registered Republicans? And about that independent support for Mr. McCain: If part of the objective in getting behind Mr. Bush was his ability to attract support apart from the party base, what to make of Mr. McCain’s now-demonstrated ability to do just that, and in far greater numbers than Mr. Bush? And, if the purpose of the compassionate conservative message was to appeal to a moderate constituency early, in order to strengthen Mr. Bush’s hand for November, how does that square with his current need to run hard to the right in order to secure the nomination? Finally, even Mr. Bush’s supporters think he needs to improve as a campaigner: Why should people think he can?

Doubt, however, is not defection, at least for the party establishment. Many, many important people are fully vested in securing the nomination for George W. Bush. They are formidable and have formidable resources at their command. They are not in a position to change their minds, nor are they inclined to do so.

The only way for Mr. McCain to surmount this hurdle is to persuade Republican voters that the party establishment got it wrong in turning to Mr. Bush and that those selfsame voters were accordingly wrong in thinking they should support the Texas governor. Here, doubt can turn into defection. That is a huge undertaking for Mr. McCain; but in the wake of Tuesday’s results, it is possible.