Posted on February 07, 2000 in Washington Watch
New Hampshire lived up to its reputation of upsetting the political establishment. Since 1952, when New Hampshire gained its status as the first state to hold its primary election in the presidential nominating process, its voters have often defeated expected winners while catapulting underdogs to victory.
This year’s Republican contest was no exception. Arizona Senator John McCain’s 49-30 percent victory over Texas Governor George W. Bush has dramatically transformed the Republican race for the 2000 presidential nomination.
For the past year, the Republican establishment has galvanized around the Bush candidacy. Determined to win back the White House, they sough a candidate they felt would lead the party to victory. The support Bush received was immediate and overwhelming. He raised massive amounts of money and secured most of the major endorsements of the Republican leadership.
The Bush campaign became a juggernaut. He was declared the “inevitable” candidate and the “electable” candidate.
As the Republican field of candidates faced this “inevitable” Bush victory, many found themselves unable to compete. Early on, the filed dwindled from 12 to six candidates. It was at this point, that the campaign began in earnest. Despite Bush’s money and endorsements, he was forced to actively campaign and meet his remaining challengers in frequent debates.
Bush’s vulnerabilities began to appear. Some criticized his command of issues and others poked fun at his frequent misstatements.
Most troubling, however, was the attack against the “establishment” for attempting to anoint Bush as the nominee without a real test of his abilities.
In the Iowa caucus, Bush won a clear, but not decisive victory over his nearest rival Steve Forbes. Bush’s only substantial challenger in the race, John McCain, chose to ignore Iowa and focus his campaign effort on New Hampshire.
New Hampshire, with its reputation for anti-establishment candidates, provided McCain with a perfect setting to launch his campaign. McCain, like Bush, sought to establish his candidacy in the center of the Republican Party—not a captive of the religious right wing. Unlike Bush, however, McCain cast himself as the opponent of the establishment. His challenge to reform campaign finance rules and his proposals to reduce taxes for the middle class (while leaving the higher tax brackets as they are) have angered the establishment.
While issues have played a role in the McCain candidacy, more compelling factors have been his biography and his “puckish” personality. McCain was a wounded Vietnam war hero. As the longest held captive prisoner of war, he was legend, even before he ran for public office. Coupled with this powerful personal story is the candidate’s engaging and free wheeling personality, which won over the nation’s press corps and provided him with enormous free and favorable publicity.
The power of the McCain candidacy was first noted by pollster John Zogby 10 months ago. With Bush riding high, Zogby conducted what is known as a blind poll. He found that when voters, who at that point did not know John McCain, were given his biography, support for his candidacy increased dramatically. Zogby’s conclusion was that, while at that point voters were supporting Bush, Dole, Kemp and Quayle—names they knew from earlier campaigns—when they go to know John McCain, he would eclipse the field. This is apparently what has happened.
After winning in Iowa, Bush set his sights for New Hampshire in an effort to defeat McCain and end his candidacy. They knew it would be difficult, since McCain was showing signs of strength in that state. The Bush campaign and George W. Bush himself, invested heavily in time and resources to win New Hampshire.
The story, therefore, is not merely that McCain won, but that he won such a massive victory. The size of his victory has given his national campaign a major boost. There has been positive press coverage and a new Zogby International poll taken two days after New Hampshire now shows McCain leading Bush in South Carolina—the next big Republican primary contest. Only two days before New Hampshire, Bush was leading McCain in South Carolina by more than 20 percentage points.
At the same time, the New Hampshire “bounce,” as it is called, has boosted McCain to a three percent lead in Michigan—a state which McCain had been given little chance of winning.
The New Hampshire victory has also helped McCain to raise money to compete. In the 48 hours after New Hampshire, the McCain campaign reported that they spontaneously raised more than $740,000 in unsolicited contributions over the internet.
National polls now show McCain faring better against a Democrat in November than Bush. This is most disturbing news for the Bush campaign. What sustained Bush’s effort so far has been its “inevitability” and his “electability.” McCain has now challenged both assumptions, and has left the Republican establishment reeling.
Now to the Democrats
While Al Gore, the Democratic establishment’s candidate, won in both Iowa nod New Hampshire, there appears to be trouble ahead for the Vice President. At one point, it was believed that if Gore won both states that the Bradley candidacy would be over. Gore did win—but it is how he won that is causing some concern.
Just a few days after Iowa, Gore opened up a 12 percent lead in New Hampshire. The pundits were numbering Bradley’s days.
At that point, Bradley, who had remained “above the fray” for much of the campaign, began to fight back. In fact, when Gore attacked Bradley, early in the campaign, Bradley appeared to be thrown off stride and became defensive. Now it was Bradley’s turn to strike back and, in two instances, draw blood.
When Bradley reminded votes of the Clinton-Gore involvement in campaign finance irregularities in 1998, he was hitting an especially weak point in the Vice President’s candidacy. This will no doubt be an issue in 2000—Bradley has decided to challenge Gore on it now rather than wait for Republicans to raise the embarrassment in the fall.
But it was on another issue that Bradley succeeded most in hurting the Vice President’s campaign. In one debate, Bradley challenged Gore noting that while the Vice President had changed his position in abortion, he, Bradley, had been a consistent supporter of a woman’s right to abortion. It is a well-known fact that Gore changed his views on this question during the 1980s.
Here, Gore made an inexplicable error. He might have acknowledged than the had indeed held a different position, but after reflection and discussion, now supported a woman’s right to abortion. Instead, he categorically denied ever having held a contrary view and stated “I have always supported Roe v. Wade” (the Supreme Court decision that guaranteed abortion rights).
With this, the issue no longer was abortion, but Gore’s tendency to exaggerate his record and appear to dissemble when caught in a conflicted situation. Bradley sharply noted “If you don’t tell the truth in a campaign, how can people trust that you’ll tell the truth when your president?”
Many believe that this controversy was, in part, the reason that Gore’s victory in New Hampshire was smaller than it might have been. He had been leading by 12 percent but that closed to a 5 pe4rcent margin, giving Gore a narrow 52-47 percent victory.
Gore won, but the questions of his honesty and campaign finance will continue to haunt his campaign. It is not certain whether these questions will impede his chance to win the Democratic nomination, but what Bradley has succeeded in doing is forcing the Democratic Party leadership to ask whether or not a candidate with these problems can defeat a Republican in November.
In the early months of his challenge to the “inevitable” Gore nomination, Bradley based his candidacy on the premise that only he could win in November. As George W. Bush showed weaknesses on the campaign trail, Gore’s chances against Bush began to look much better. As a result, the Bradley campaign appeared to lose it’s raison d’etre.
With McCain’s surge after New Hampshire and with a wounded Gore emerging from a narrow New Hampshire victory—the issue of “electiablitiy” is surfacing once again.
It is still quite early in the 2000 campaign and there will no doubt be many twists and turns before the parties have chosen their nominees. What is clear, however, is that there is no inevitable Republican or Democratic candidate. Both parties’ establishments received that message in New Hampshire.
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