In fact, some believe the tax argument between McCain and Bush may help the Texas governor blunt Forbes' escalating critique from the right. Forbes last week began airing ads in New Hampshire and Iowa accusing Bush of breaking a no-new-taxes pledge in Texas. But with Bush now centering his message on a call for tax cuts larger than McCain's, Forbes may have trouble painting the front-runner as an unreliable tax-cutter.
The third factor boosting Bush has been McCain's troubles. McCain's core message has been his promise to clean up Washington, but he was forced on the defensive by revelations last week that he recently wrote to the Federal Communications Commission urging a decision on a television station purchase sought by a campaign contributor.
Still, New Hampshire remains a potential rut in the road for Bush. His greatest risk there is a two-way ideological squeeze. Even in the Boston Herald poll last week that showed Bush and McCain in a statistical dead heat, the senator from Arizona still held a roughly 15-percentage-point advantage among both independents and moderates. Bush was even only because he led among conservative voters by 14 percentage points.
But Forbes is now amplifying his attacks on Bush from the right, not only on taxes but also on abortion. The Forbes ads in New Hampshire and Iowa feature a Texas political activist accusing Bush of breaking a no-tax-hike pledge by proposing an increase in sales and business taxes. (The ad doesn't mention that Bush's 1997 plan included large property tax reductions that resulted in a net $1-billion tax cut.)
If these attacks allow Forbes to peel away more conservative New Hampshire voters, Bush might not have enough strength left on the right to offset McCain's hold on the center.
McCain's problem is that it will be difficult to replicate a New Hampshire victory if he cannot expand his appeal to conservatives; few other states offer such a moderate and independent electorate. That challenge helps explain why McCain used the words "conservative" or "conservatism" nearly a dozen times in the speech announcing his tax plan.
A Barrage of Bush TV Ads
Adding to McCain's challenge, Bush is flexing his financial muscle with a barrage of television advertising. Through this week, Bush had spent nearly $2 million in Boston and Manchester, more than $1.1 million in the three major Michigan media markets and nearly $500,000 in Phoenix, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks ad buys for The Times. (McCain, so far, has spent about $943,000 in Boston and Manchester, $85,000 in the Michigan markets and nothing in Arizona.) On Tuesday, Bush launched ads in Virginia, Washington and North Dakota, which will all vote on Feb. 29. McCain hasn't matched that new thrust.
"From the very beginning, the game plan has been to make sure that we could lay down deep supply lines everywhere," said Mark McKinnon, Bush's media advisor. "This is really where we see our [financial] assets kicking in."
Times staff writer T. Christian Miller contributed to this story.