A GOP rebel heats up S.C.


PROSPERITY, S.C. -- Leaning down from the cab of his logging truck, DeWayne Hicks is emphatic about why he is wearing a George W. Bush for President sticker on his shirt.

My wifes a big Republican and shes for Bush, he says, so I want to keep peace in the family, if you know what I mean. But I really like this McCain, and what my wife doesnt know wont hurt anything. The thing about McCain is hes the one whos made this whole thing exciting.

There is a lot of this kind of talk going around South Carolina this week, enough so that the opinion polls that show the Republican primary race here essentially even seem counter-intuitive. The subjective, seat-of-the-pants indicators all point toward John McCain.

With a few exceptions, however, the poll-takers have been consistently accurate so far in this campaign. But New Hampshire polls underestimated Mr. McCains extraordinary victory margin because they underestimated the turnout of independents. So the operative question about the surveys here this week is whether their turnout projections reflect the level of interest in the primary Saturday.

If that is the case, several factors could be playing a role in producing such a tight race.

At the most basic level, this is a campaign quite different from the one in New Hampshire. With months of campaign time in a small state, Mr. McCain could conduct 114 town meetings and greet tens of thousands of voters. In South Carolina, the campaign necessarily has been waged on television, in dueling commercials and news reports.

Second, the demographics are different. Republicans here tend to be more conservative on social questions such as abortion rights than those in New Hampshire. The withdrawal of Steve Forbes, the wealthy publisher who had become the favorite of the right-to-life groups, probably has given a few more points to Mr. Bush than to Mr. McCain.

The endorsement of the Christian Coalition means much more to the Texas governor here than it did in New Hampshire.

Neither Republican has put abortion rights at the top of his agenda for the White House. And neither has been willing to promise to use opposition to Roe vs. Wade as a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees. But the religious right feels at least marginally more comfortable with Mr. Bush than with someone as independent and unorthodox as Mr. McCain.

Third, Mr. McCain has made some political missteps of his own since New Hampshire. His attacks on Mr. Bush, however valid they may have been, undermined the image the Arizona Republican had projected as a man above politics as usual. Mr. McCain made a damaging blunder when he compared Mr. Bush to President Clinton, thus allowing the Texas governor to reply on the air with a sanctimonious declaration of outrage that his rival had gone too far.

Moreover, Mr. McCain seemed to be confessing error when, entering the final week of the campaign, he suddenly ordered his negative commercials taken off the air and promised there would be no more.

Still another factor in the final days has been the drumbeat of attacks on Mr. McCain on television and on radio stations. He is being pilloried not just by Mr. Bush and his supporters in the Republican establishment but by such auxiliaries of the Bush campaign as the right-to-life groups and the tobacco interests.

The message is that John McCain won in New Hampshire because the voters didnt get to know the truth about him. The real reformer in the campaign, we are told, is that reformer with results, George W. Bush. The attacks show signs of hitting their mark, at least to a degree. The most recent polls show Mr. McCains negatives creeping up although still well below those of Mr. Bush or other candidates this year.

But it is John McCains candidacy that has made this primary something more than a routine political exercise in a backwater state, which is what it has been in the past. The polls showing the contest essentially even tell us how difficult it can be to buck the Republican establishment.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Suns Washington bureau.

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