In N.H., a difficult road for McCain; Slip on abortion issue sets back campaign of plain-talking senator


NASHUA, N.H. After listening to Sen. John McCain pitch his political reform ideas at a luncheon here, Caroline Wojcicki said she believed the Republican presidential candidate "has earned our respect."

But he has yet to gain her support. Wojcicki is also seriously considering another self-styled reformer who's been drawing enthusiastic crowds in the first primary state: former Sen. Bill Bradley, a New Jersey Democrat.

"The Republican Party no longer represents me," says Wojcicki of Amherst, N.H., who brought her teen-age daughter to the McCain event. "It has embraced far too much of the far right's agenda."

That's why she's inclined to switch her Republican registration, she says, and join the nation's fastest-growing voter group: those who belong to neither major party.

For McCain, who hopes the New Hampshire primary will propel him into serious contention in the 2000 presidential contest, the flight of disaffected Republican moderates into the independent column is potentially troublesome.

McCain attracted sizable audiences on his latest visit to the state, his 15th of the year. In an interview, he said that "the traction we are getting here is the most critical part of the campaign so far."

Two statewide polls in August showed McCain moving into second place in New Hampshire, slightly ahead of the bulk of the Republicans, though at least 30 percentage points behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush. But a new survey, released yesterday by WBZ-TV and the Boston Globe, showed Elizabeth Hanford Dole leading McCain for second place by 2 percentage points, a statistical tie.

A senior official of McCain's organization in New Hampshire said privately that a recent slip by McCain on the abortion issue had set back his progress in the state.

Moderate Republican and independent voters who support abortion rights were turned off, the campaign official said, when McCain's efforts to clarify his position only served to underline the staunchly anti-abortion record he had apparently tried to soften.

"My heart sank," the official said, when McCain backed away from statements this summer that he would not seek to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade that legalized abortion. McCain says his voting record in the House and Senate, which has been consistently anti-abortion, is the best indication of his position.

McCain vs. Bradley

When New Hampshire holds its presidential primary in February, independents are likely to outnumber registered Republicans or Democrats for the first time. Under state law, independents may choose either a Republican or Democratic ballot on primary election day.

It is unclear how many independents will vote in the primaries here (and in other states, such as California, whose primaries are open to all registered voters). But some moderates who have been leaning toward McCain could wind up supporting Bradley, who is also making political reform a major element of his outsider campaign against Washington.

Such a choice seemed to be on voters' minds as McCain's "Straight Talk Express" bus rolled across the Granite State last week. At a question-and-answer session at the New London town hall, he was asked to outline the differences between himself and Bradley.

"I think we could have a spirited and healthy debate," McCain said, if he and his liberal counterpart won their respective party nominations. "He's a very thoughtful man."

But McCain's prospects are also clouded by his high-risk plan to skip the Iowa caucuses, eight days before New Hampshire votes.

Bradley, the only Democratic primary challenger to Al Gore, is hoping that a strong showing in Iowa will generate excitement heading into his showdown with the vice president in New Hampshire. Meanwhile, McCain, who says he'll make a final decision soon about contesting Iowa, could find himself on the sidelines immediately before the New Hampshire primary if he decides not to compete in Iowa and winds up being overshadowed by Bradley and others who do well there.

Senate nonconformist

During his five-day, 16-city bus tour, McCain said his first priority as president would be to "clean up government." The Arizona senator is the leading Republican sponsor of a measure that would overhaul campaign finance by, among other things, doing away with the large donations known as "soft money."

McCain, 63, who has "made my entire life experience my campaign," is running on a resume that includes 5 1/2 years spent under brutal conditions in a North Vietnamese prison camp. In a new book, "Faith of My Fathers," written with longtime aide Mark Salter, he traces the roots of his persistently nonconformist behavior, which has brought him into conflict with authority at various points along the way, including in his years at the Naval Academy.

Referring to himself as a Senate "outcast" (only one Republican colleague, Fred Thompson of Tennessee has endorsed him), McCain is stitching together a campaign message that combines traditional conservative themes of increased military spending and lower taxes with a populist critique of the "big money" interests that he says have taken control of the federal government from ordinary citizens.

He tells voters that Republicans in Congress larded a recent tax-cut bill (which he supported) with wasteful tax breaks for special interests. He accuses both parties of running "a scam" by spending the anticipated federal budget surplus before it can materialize.

His openness and irreverence have made him a favorite of the news media, to whom he is unusually receptive. In a throwback to an earlier time, when campaigns were less controlled, he invited reporters and cameras aboard his $1,700-a-day campaign bus.

While campaign aides cooled their heels in the front compartment, McCain spent hours in the back swapping war stories with reporters and tossing off blunt comments on everything from Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin ("an aging alcoholic") to what he expects when he takes his 14-year-old daughter to this week's MTV Video Music Awards ("an assault on the senses that I've seldom experienced since leaving prison").

"As you can see, I'm averse to repeating the same thing at every stop, because I bore myself to death," said McCain. He insists he's having fun as he follows an exhausting schedule fueled largely by caffeine (he downed at least five cups of coffee by noon one day last week) and receives warm responses from supporters (many of whom wear veterans caps).

On the topic of abortion, though, the normally freewheeling candidate has turned uncharacteristically robotic. At almost every stop, he responded to questions by reciting his 17-year record of anti-abortion votes in Congress, his belief that life begins at the moment of conception, the need to find alternatives to abortion, such as adoption, and his hope that the Republican Party would be more welcoming to those who support abortion rights.

This summer, in an apparent attempt to make himself appear more reasonable on social issues, McCain reversed a long-held position and said he would not support overturning the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, saying countless women would be forced to undergo illegal and unsafe operations.

When national anti-abortion leaders howled in protest, McCain backtracked. He told voters last week that he would push for a reversal of Roe vs. Wade immediately after taking office.

McCain insisted in an interview that he isn't struggling with the issue, despite his unsuccessful efforts to change the subject in recent days. But his unease was evident, even to those unaware of the controversy over his remarks.

"He seemed very tense," said Lise Patten of Keene, N.H., who pressed her abortion-rights views on McCain after he spoke to 150 potential supporters at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall.

Her friend Barbara Munson, 73, who drove down from Hanover, N.H., to hear McCain, said she admired the former senator "on most things" but was deeply disappointed by his anti-abortion views. A registered Republican, she said she voted Democratic "for this issue only" in the past two elections and, though she regretted how Bill Clinton's presidency has turned out, might be forced to do the same again next year.

Pub Date: 9/06/99

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