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CAMPAIGN 2000

On Big Stage, McCain Couldn't Live Up to His Own Billing

Republicans: He took supporters and the country on adventure. But revelation that he was a politician with flaws didn't jibe with his grand promises of honesty.

March 10, 2000|ERIC SLATER and T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

John McCain was supposed to be one more longshot candidate on an underfunded trip to a couple of early Republican primaries. Instead, his campaign captivated the country, sent the party on a quest for self-discovery and unearthed a trove of new, reform-minded voters certain to be courted for years.

Wrapped around simple, unexpectedly timely notions of honesty at any price, campaign finance reform and a more welcoming party, the senator's run will be remembered as an inspiring political adventure that lured so many new voters to the polls that turnout records were broken in nine Republican primaries.

"My friends," he would tell every audience, "I will say things you agree with and some things you don't agree with. But I promise you this: I will always tell you the truth, no matter what."

In the end, that was perhaps too grand a promise in this post-impeachment era of political word-mincing and daily polling, when every subject, most especially "truth," is open to interpretation.

Tactical Errors Cost Him in the End

Although the former fighter jock's insurgent campaign made a series of tactical errors, especially in the crazy waning days of the race, the story of McCain's fall may be that over time he was revealed as a politician--a good one, with a remarkable biography and incalculable charisma--but a politician with flaws who could never live up to his own billing.

Along the way, however, he also turned the primary process on its head. Then he shook it. What fell out may hold lessons for future candidates and voters alike.

"It's going to be kind of quiet now," Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, said wistfully Thursday morning. "The circus has left town."

The 63-year-old former Vietnam War prisoner was just another senator with big ambitions and little support when he made his first, seminal break from primary tradition. He decided last year to skip the Iowa caucuses and spend his tiny war chest in one place: tiny New Hampshire.

McCain all but relocated to the state, holding 114 town hall meetings and shaking hands with an estimated 5% of New Hampshire residents. On Feb. 1, they rewarded him, and punished the seemingly aloof George W. Bush, by delivering McCain an astounding 18-point victory over the Texas governor.

A few days later, strategist Mike Murphy stepped onto McCain's "Straight Talk Express" bus and held up the fresh edition of three major news weeklies. McCain's triumphant face was on the cover of them all.

The first major primaries, in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan, were open, meaning independents and Democrats could vote Republican if they wanted. And last fall, Murphy and senior political advisor John Weaver made some critical calculations. If McCain could win crossover voters and take those primaries, they figured, he could get the ball rolling.

The 18-point drubbing in his pocket, McCain rolled through the countryside in South Carolina, the next state on the primary calendar, chattering with previously unseen glee to reporters in the back of his bus.

The "Straight Talk Express" was another of the campaign's half-thought-out miracles, an icon so seemingly charmed that a South Carolina trooper once pulled it over for no better reason than to meet the senator. (He was instead greeted by two dozen reporters and photographers; McCain was on another bus in the fleet.)

The anachronistic idea of allowing reporters full-time anything-goes access to the candidate was born over the summer, when advisors recognized the handful of journalists were providing media exposure the campaign could never afford.

Reporters filling two trailing buses even tried to bribe aides with doughnuts for a spot on the "Straight Talk Express," where McCain pontificated for hours about everything from his plan for the budget surplus to military options in Kosovo. He mimicked, badly, one reporter's Australian accent, kidded another one, a newspaper veteran, that he didn't want him dying of old age on the bus and suggested he sit, not stand.

Nearly as much was written about the McCain coverage as about McCain, with critics lamenting softball stories by reporters they presumed had been struck dumb by the senator's powerful presence.

As much as anything, though, the coverage was what it was because McCain flicked on nearly all the lights in his campaign and allowed anyone to see almost anything. And, while the highest-level meetings took place at night or in private, reporters had extraordinary access to off-the-cuff strategy sessions, which only added to the sense of an honest campaign.

Bush emerged from a post-New Hampshire overhaul at his home in Austin with a new slogan for South Carolina: "A reformer with results." And he came out swinging.

McCain, a senatorial scrapper of the highest order, appeared improbably unprepared for the scrap.

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