Odds are, McCain won't disrupt Bush's momentum


NASHUA, N.H. -- John McCain makes his candidacy official here as the pet rock of the political insiders and the press. It's impossible to say, however, whether the early interest in him can translate into a serious challenge to George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination.

The Arizona senator has become a favorite inside the Beltway by occasionally saying just what's on his mind rather than measuring every word for political correctness. It is a measure of the low estate of politics in America today that a little candor can go such a long way.

But there is no significant evidence suggesting that Mr. McCain is lighting any fires in the electorate at large. Opinion polls consistently show him with less than 10 percent of the Republican primary electorate, 30 to 40 points behind Mr. Bush, the Texas governor, and in some surveys also trailing either Elizabeth Dole or Steve Forbes.

But veterans of New Hampshire primaries remember many cases in which candidates running far back in the pack in the pre-election year came on to win upsets in the late winter. In the contest for the 1984 Democratic nomination, for example, Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado had less than 10 percent in polls as late as New Year's Day but defeated former Vice President Walter Mondale in the primary.

The analogy is not neat. Mr. Hart's surprisingly strong finish in the Iowa caucuses made him an instant runaway celebrity and carried him past the stodgy Mr. Mondale in New Hampshire eight days later.

Mr. McCain is essentially bypassing Iowa because he believes his opposition to federal subsidies for ethanol have made him a political villain in a state where corn is king. Nor does Mr. McCain have the benefit of a generational argument comparable to the one that propelled Mr. Hart's candidacy.

The political buzz

But there was a buzz about Mr. Hart similar to that you hear about Mr. McCain -- that he is attracting some intriguing supporters and has at least the potential for crystallizing whatever reservations there may be about Mr. Bush.

It is probably fair to say that most unaligned Republican professionals rank the Arizona senator as the one candidate with that potential.

Mr. McCain's most obvious asset is, of course, his personal story. His survival of five and a half years as a prisoner of war after he was shot down over North Vietnam is a credential of gravitas no other candidate in either party can match.

But his most important advantage may be the context of the 2000 campaign. At a time when most Americans have turned away from politicians in disgust, Mr. McCain projects an image as an unfettered maverick. His defiance of the party leadership in Congress on such issues as campaign-finance reform and tobacco has reinforced that picture.

On the other hand, that same independence is not as highly valued by the cultural conservatives who are inclined to be suspicious of Republicans who are favorites of reporters. And although Mr. McCain has taken a firm stance against abortion rights, the litmus test issue for the religious right, it is also clear that the issue is not near the top of his agenda.

Mr. McCain's only hope is to score well enough here to win the "expectations game" that is always so important in measuring the effect of New Hampshire primaries. That would mean either beating Mr. Bush or running a close enough second to exceed the preliminary predictions.

Military appeal

Then it would be on to South Carolina, which holds the next primary on the schedule and has a large population of veterans of the armed forces to whom Mr. McCain might be particularly appealing.

The danger in that strategy is that most voters here don't make up their minds until right before the primary and thus are influenced by those Iowa results.

In 1980, Senate Republican leader Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee made an intense effort here after running third in Iowa but found that the primary voters saw their choice as between the two leaders in Iowa, George Bush and Ronald Reagan.

So this is a decidedly uphill struggle for Mr. McCain. But for John McCain, that is nothing new.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 9/27/99

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