The Washington Times
In most presidential primary contests, a Democratic consultant once observed to me, there is a moment at which the front-runner stumbles and is vulnerable to being taken down – provided his opponent has the vision to see the moment and how to act when it arrives, as well as the resources to do the job. That challengers take down front-runners only once in a blue moon is testimony to how rare this combination is.
John McCain had the moment in view coming out of his stunning New Hampshire victory over George W. Bush, and he had sufficient resources. But he seems to have missed on the question of how to seize it.
New Hampshire fosters delusions, and the chief delusion is that what worked there will continue to work down the line. But as often as it is a bellwether, New Hampshire is idiosyncratic. It tricks its winners into thinking they must be doing something right, and accordingly encourages them to ignore warning signs about what they may be doing wrong.
Mr. McCain delivered as mighty a blow to a front-runner as New Hampshire has ever produced. Here, against all reasonable expectation, given the extent to which the GOP establishment was fully vested in Mr. Bush (as indeed the Democratic establishment is in Al Gore), was a 19-point victory that looked like it could actually change the political equation, setting in motion the wresting of the nomination from Mr. Bush.
Focused on the threat of the lingering presence of the self-financed Steve Forbes in the campaign – while Mr. Forbes couldn’t win, he might bleed the Texas governor for some time – the Bush campaign did nothing effectual to counter Mr. McCain’s rise. The governor himself also seemed woefully underprepared; he showed poorly next to the charismatic Mr. McCain.
In the wake of New Hampshire, Mr. McCain was the beneficiary of all the positive media attention a candidate could wish for, and the magnitude of his victory instantly increased his standing in national polls, lending credibility to his candidacy and dissipating the aura of inevitability the Bush campaign claimed hovered around their man.
And then Mr. McCain ignored a key signal out of New Hampshire, a signal that would be reinforced over and over again in political conversations in the run-up to South Carolina: Mr. McCain had a Republican problem. He never moved to address it, and it sank him.
The signal from New Hampshire was that notwithstanding the magnitude of his victory, Mr. McCain actually lost narrowly among registered Republicans in this open Republican primary, 41-38. Mr. McCain rightly portrayed his strong showing among independents and Democrats as evidence that he could draw new voters to the party. But this claim requires buttressing with majority support among Republican voters themselves.
Mr. McCain would not have won converts among the party establishment between New Hampshire and South Carolina; they were too busy trying to buck up Mr. Bush. But he might have won converts among rank-and-file GOP voters. The Bush campaign and the party establishment went into overdrive trying to persuade GOP voters in South Carolina that Mr. Bush better represented their views. Mr. McCain never effectively countered this claim. Mr. Bush beat him in South Carolina among registered Republicans 69-26 amid surging turnout.
Could Mr. McCain have done better? There is reason to think he could have. In the first place, whatever success the Bush campaign had with registered Republicans, it was not accompanied by an emerging unfavorable view of Mr. McCain among voters. Seventy-three percent of voters had a favorable impression of Mr. Bush; 67 percent had a favorable opinion of Mr. McCain. Given Mr. Bush’s 11-point victory, Mr. McCain was actually better liked by people who did not vote for him than the Texas governor was by people who didn’t vote for him.
Mr. McCain probably couldn’t have won over party operatives or conservative opinion leaders in the time available. But with a sustained effort to portray himself as a Republican team player on issues of broad concern to the party – a move that, to be sure, would have cast him against type, since this is not a quality he has displayed in the Senate – he might have attracted not only GOP voters who support him on campaign finance reform but also others willing to grant him his unorthodoxy on that issue provided they see signs of broad agreement on others.
Instead, Mr. McCain kept thumping his reform theme, almost sounding at times as if he were running for the GOP nomination by running against the GOP. No, he needed the Republican party, majority support among the rank-and-file, at least. This he failed to cultivate; any McCain victory scenario without such support assumes the collapse of all opposition. The Bush campaign was unwilling to oblige.
The front-runner stumbled, the moment was at hand – the McCain moment, against all odds. Heady with success, Mr. McCain apparently failed to understand that he had much work left to do. It looks as if the moment has passed, and there is unlikely to be another.