COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A month ago, the conventional wisdom held that the contest for the Republican presidential nomination might be decided in New Hampshire. The premise was that once George W. Bush won that first primary, the other candidates would yield to his money and leadership backing and close ranks around him.
But the weakness Mr. Bush showed there, coming on the heels of a lackluster success in the Iowa caucuses, has changed the dynamics of the contest so it is now certain to continue for another month -- and quite possibly much longer.
The notion of the South Carolina primary as decisive is outmoded. Win or lose, John S. McCain has the will and resources to carry him through primaries that will choose well over half the delegates to the Republican convention in Philadelphia in July.
This is a sea change of potentially great significance in the ultimate decision about who wins the White House in November.
The Republicans had been hoping for a quick consensus and then several months of Mr. Bush using his huge campaign fund to make the case against Vice President Al Gore or Bill Bradley. Instead, Mr. Bush is having to deplete his treasury in an extended contest against Mr. McCain that may leave the party scarred.
Indeed, questions about which candidate can go the distance are now directed at Mr. Bush as often as at Mr. McCain. The revelation that the Texas governor's campaign has spent $50 million of the staggering $70 million raised last year means that he no longer holds a marked advantage in political firepower.
In South Carolina Mr. Bush's money has been critical. Free of the spending restrictions imposed on candidates who accept public money, Mr. Bush has spent something over $3 million here. And most of it has paid for a saturation campaign of negative advertising directed at Mr. McCain.
The barrage has shown once again that negative ads, however offensive they may be to voters, can be effective although sometimes at a price. In this case the negatives of both the attacker, Mr. Bush, and the target, Mr. McCain, have risen in the past 10 days.
Mr. McCain is the target, moreover, of commercials financed by the tobacco industry and the opponents of abortion rights. Even Alan Keyes, the candidate of the far-right fringe of Republicanism, is running a radio commercial attacking Mr. McCain.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush is showing signs of the pressure he is getting from contributors and party leaders who wonder how he has managed to spend $50 million without putting away the opposition. The Texas governor is suddenly presenting himself as the candidate of reform.
But the fact the Arizona senator has managed to stay even with Mr. Bush suggests he enjoys a hard core of support. Final polls show the contest here dead even. Although there are some small indications of upward movement by Mr. McCain, nothing is comparable to the wild rush to his banner that occurred in the final 10 days in New Hampshire campaign.
That success gave the Arizona Republican the kind of political celebrity that changed the context of the campaign. He is now raising money at a rapid enough pace -- $3 million from the Internet alone in the past two weeks -- so that he may be able to compete on even terms by the time of the March 7 primaries in California, New York and a dozen other states.
Perhaps equally important is that Mr. McCain has stolen Mr. Bush's best political argument -- that he is the Republican with the best chance of winning in November. A new Gallup Poll shows Mr. McCain defeating Mr. Gore 55 percent to 39 percent while Bush wins only 50 to 45 percent.
The operative question, however, is whether the Republicans can make it through a more extended campaign without self-immolating. The campaign here changed radically when Mr. Bush realized he could no longer coast along on his money and poll numbers and started taking on Mr. McCain directly. Within a week, the good will between the two candidates vanished.
Now the prospect is for similar intensity for a few days in Michigan and for another week in Virginia, where the primary will be held the following Tuesday, a week before the main event in California and New York. The quick knockout is no longer a realistic possibility.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write fromThe Sun's Washingon bureau.
Pub Date: 2/18/00