Sen. John McCain has jolted the race for the Republican presidential nomination. His landslide win in the New Hampshire primary this week stunned the front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, and reinvigorated the campaign. New Hampshire is not representative of U.S. politics, but the results there foreshadow some of the twists that lie ahead on the campaign trail.
Mr. McCain gambled on New Hampshire. He skipped last month’s Iowa caucuses to focus on a state that is known for its independence. His strategy paid off, rewarding the maverick senator with a resounding 18-percentage-point (49-31) defeat of Mr. Bush. A loss would have killed his campaign.
The senator’s success was the product of two factors: relentless campaigning and a lackluster, unfocused performance by Mr. Bush. Mr. McCain will not be able to repeat the first one. He could concentrate on New Hampshire because there was no competition for his time. As the primary season heats up, he will be forced to spread himself thinner. He will also need a bigger organization to manage his campaign and help get out his message. Here, Mr. Bush has the advantage. His $70 million war chest has financed the building of a formidable political machine. But that is of little help if the candidate cannot give voters a reason to support him — which is what happened in New Hampshire.
Mr. Bush presents himself as a governor, someone closer to the people than Washington insiders — a group that includes both Democratic Party candidates and Mr. McCain. But Mr. McCain steals that thunder by painting himself as a maverick who promises straight talk and a break with politics as usual. That image goes over well in New Hampshire, where voters are famous for their independent streak.
The problem for Mr. McCain is that New Hampshire is notorious for going its own way rather than foreshadowing what is to come. For frontrunners, it is, as Mr. Bush pointed out, “a bump in the road.” South Carolina, the site of the next Republican primary, to be held Feb. 19, is much more representative of the nation as a whole. In fact, over the last two decades, the state has settled every contested Republican nomination.
Mr. McCain can take some solace from the exit polls. According to them, he appeals to almost every voter group: men and women of all ages, income groups and education levels. But Mr. Bush is nothing if not a quick learner. He has already digested the lessons of New Hampshire and come out fighting. Interestingly, his first appearance in South Carolina burnished his religious credentials. While that appeals to the GOP hard core, it threatens to alienate independents and moderate Republicans.
Their support will be critical for any GOP candidate against a Democratic opponent running with the tail wind provided by eight years of steady economic growth. New Hampshire solidified Vice President Al Gore’s lead, and even though he did not deliver a knockout blow to former Sen. Bill Bradley, the campaign now moves to states in which support from labor unions, the pillar of the party, could put him over the top. The big threat to Mr. Gore’s campaign is a no-holds-barred assault that airs his dirty laundry — campaign-finance scandals and ties to the Clinton presidency — and irreparably tars the vice president’s image. The comments have been heating up in recent weeks, and Mr. Bradley’s reference to the first two votes as “a warmup” bodes ill for the party.
In politics, perception is often as important as reality. It has been the appearance of an inevitable victory that gave Mr. Bush much of his momentum. Donors and supporters want to get on the bandwagon, which helps make the governor look even more unbeatable. The New Hampshire loss — and its margin — shattered his image of invincibility and obliged many to wonder just how inevitable a Bush win really is.
Of course, Mr. McCain benefits from that, but so does Mr. Gore. Mr. Bush’s commanding lead in early polls prompted many Democrats to look for a candidate who was not tainted by the Clinton legacy. That was the opening Mr. Bradley needed. Now, however, the Bush juggernaut is sputtering, and Mr. Gore is creeping up in the polls. A recent survey showed him a slim 3 percentage points behind Mr. Bush and some analysts think he could pass the governor in a few weeks. New Hampshire offers him hope: Last September, polls showed him being beaten by Mr. Bradley by 15 points.
Both races could be wrapped up March 7, when 15 states hold primaries or caucuses. Until then, it promises to be a vigorous campaign. The two party organizations can only hope that it is not too vigorous. For them, the real fight begins next fall.
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