- The Washington Times - Monday, December 13, 1999

George W. Bush and Al Gore are light years ahead of their closest rivals in national polls but the media routinely portrays John McCain and Bill Bradley as having nearly as much chance of winning the presidential primaries.
Although Mr. McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona, and Mr. Bradley, the Democratic former senator from New Jersey, could easily stage upset victories in New Hampshire, each is trailing by more than 20 points in nationwide surveys.
For example, 58 percent of Republicans in a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll taken last week said they supported Mr. Bush, the Texas governor, while only 31 percent backed Mr. McCain. The 27-point gap is dwarfed by a 41-point chasm on the Democratic side, where Vice President Gore is leading Mr. Bradley, 65-14.
Some insist that victories by Mr. McCain and Mr. Bradley in the small, contrarian state of New Hampshire on Feb. 1 will alter the national political landscape so profoundly that one or both of the underdogs can go on to win the Super Tuesday contest a scant six weeks later, paving the way for come-from-behind nominations in August. But most political experts consider that scenario a stretch.
Still, reporters often ascribe Mr. McCain and Mr. Bradley with the same stature as the all-but-certain nominees. This is due largely to the media’s desire for a horse race, said Craig Crawford, editor in chief of Hotline, a daily compendium of campaign coverage for political junkies.
“A shock wave went through newsrooms either subconsciously or maybe consciously, in some places earlier in the year, when suddenly it was Al Gore and George Bush,” Mr. Crawford said last week at a University of Virginia symposium. “Wait a minute. This campaign’s over. We can’t have this.
“So there was a natural receptivity to some new names on the field,” he said. “In the case of Bradley and McCain both, I think there was a real sense that we need a story here.”
He added: “That’s a good thing because we were on our way to some sort of coronation of George Bush and Al Gore earlier on and I think the public needs a better debate than that.”
Linda Fowler, professor of government at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said the media’s desire for a contest is only part of the explanation.
“Certainly on the Republican side they pumped up Liddy Dole early in the game to make it a horse race,” said Miss Fowler, director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for the Social Sciences. “Then when she didn’t catch fire, they dropped her. John McCain has benefited in the same way.
“But no respectable newspaper wants to miss the next Jimmy Carter,” Miss Fowler said in an interview. “It isn’t so much that they want to create a contest although that’s there too, because it’s more interesting news if there’s a horse race but it’s also the case that journalists, as professional watchers of politics, don’t want to miss out on the big story.
“So that’s what they’re looking for: Is John McCain the big story of the 2000 election?” she concluded. “As far as the Democrats are concerned, whatever original play Bradley got I think has certainly been backed up now by reality. I mean, Bradley has a credible organization and his $12 million in the bank was not manufactured by the press covering him as a potential challenger.”
Conservative TV commentator Tony Blankley agreed.
“It’s premature to start ignoring McCain and Bradley,” said Mr. Blankley, former press secretary for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “And so the media’s covering them as if they are serious candidates, which they are, and giving them almost equal coverage with the guys who are ahead, but don’t have it in the bag.”
Asked if the press is overstating the strength of the challengers, Mr. Blankley said: “Probably a little bit.” But he added that reporters have a long tradition of nursing underdog campaigns.
“I can’t really fault the media too much,” he added. “Nobody knows exactly whether McCain has a 10 percent chance or a 40 percent chance of getting the nomination. We’ve all put forth our theories, but nobody knows.”
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Government Studies at the University of Virginia, is less forgiving of the press for its favorable coverage of Mr. McCain. He said reporters are overly sympathetic to Mr. McCain’s support for campaign finance reform and opposition to tobacco.
“My God,” Mr. Sabato exclaimed at the university’s symposium, which was televised by C-SPAN. “They’re practically running his campaign. And they’ve positioned him well for an upset in New Hampshire.”
Mr. Sabato said he has not seen such media favoritism of a candidate since 1992 when the “clearly liberal press” was “in the tank for Bill Clinton.”
“Or perhaps,” he added. “John F. Kennedy’s campaign in 1960.”
Stephen Hess, senior fellow in government studies at the Brookings Institution, said reporters who write that Mr. McCain or Mr. Bradley have a credible chance at winning may end up fooling only themselves.
“At some point, you start to believe it,” Mr. Hess told The Washington Times. “You read your own copy. You read the other guy’s copy. You’re looking for those signs and you can always find them. And so it becomes self-delusionary.”

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