- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 1999

One of the biggest media scams in recent memory is being perpetrated on the American public. It is the story that Sen. John McCain, the obvious darling of the Washington news media, is in a competitive race against Gov. George W. Bush.
He isn’t, of course, and a reverential 11-page Time cover story to promote the left-leaning Arizona maverick, plus all the other media reports that say Mr. McCain is hot on the heels of the Texas front-runner, won’t make it so.
True, Mr. McCain is slightly ahead in the Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary contest for the Republican presidential nomination. There are several reasons for this, but the main one is he has spent most of the past several months virtually living in the state, going to dozens of town meetings, and out-organizing everybody.
In a go-for-broke “put all your eggs in one basket” strategy, Mr. McCain is concentrating on a single state, bypassing the Feb. 24 Iowa caucuses and doing little campaigning elsewhere. His wild gamble is based on the theory that if he can upset the Texas governor in the nation’s first primary, Mr. Bush’s candidacy will crumble and Mr. McCain’s momentum will carry him to victory in the succeeding primaries.
Much has been written about the senator’s famous temper tantrums with his colleagues in the Senate. But perhaps more needs to be written about his inability to get a grip on reality at least the cold hard reality of Mr. Bush’s huge lead in the rest of the country.
In virtually every state where polls have been taken, Mr. Bush is leading Mr. McCain by 30 or 40 points or more. Mr. McCain cannot point to a single state where he leads the governor by similar margins. Even in his adopted state of Arizona, Mr. McCain is statistically tied with Mr. Bush perhaps the most compelling manifestation of the senator’s weakness as a national candidate. Mr. Bush could win Mr. McCain’s state.
Originally, Mr. McCain had a two-state strategy. He would win in New Hampshire, then beat Mr. Bush 18 days later in the South Carolina primary, where he hopes the state’s many veterans will rally to the side of a Vietnam War hero. But two weeks ago, Mr. McCain got the bad news: A poll showed Mr. Bush with a stunning 40-point lead in the state, whose farmers remember with disgust Mr. McCain’s attempt to pass an $800 billion tobacco-tax bill that they say would drive them out of business.
Mr. McCain’s two-state strategy was crushed.
All that remains now is his vain hope that a victory in New Hampshire will give him a chance to catch up with Mr. Bush in succeeding primaries. But that is a daydream that only the news media seems to believe.
The front-loaded primary schedule is going to go off, in Haley Barbour’s phase, “like a string of firecrackers.” After South Carolina comes a scattering of primaries in late February that include Arizona, Michigan and Virginia, places where Mr. Bush is strong.
Then come 14 GOP primaries in rapid-fire succession. The primaries in Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington will be held on March 7; the Colorado, Utah and Wyoming primaries will be held on March 10. These are all states in which Mr. Bush is leading where polls have been taken.
Bush strategists think he will be well on his way to wrapping up the nomination by then, when nearly 1,000 delegates will have been chosen.
Then come the March 14 primaries in Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas. These will clinch the nomination for Bush. By this time, 1,302 delegates will have been chosen 63 percent of the total and Mr. Bush will have most of them. The race for the nomination will be over.
Mr. McCain has been a odd candidate from the beginning. He has made campaign-finance reform the core of his agenda, even though few Republicans list it among their chief concerns.
Worse, his prescription for reform is essentially an incumbent-protection law, hated by grass-roots advocacy groups on the left, right and middle, whose freedom to buy and run ads against candidates on issues of importance to them in the closing weeks of a campaign would be ended. As Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah stated in Monday night’s GOP debate in Des Moines, “Why do you think mostly Democrats support his bill?”
That bill alone was enough to alienate the GOP’s rank-and-file. But when Mr. McCain went galloping off on a quixotic crusade to pass his huge tobacco-tax bill in 1998, he effectively cut all ties with his party’s base. And earlier this year, when he backpedaled on his party’s right-to-life stance, he became a pariah to many Republicans.
Even his shaky Concord Coalition economic policies are grounds for suspicion. He opposes marginal tax-rate cuts. He thinks the economy can’t grow faster than the CBO’s anemic 2.4 percent projection. “He’s been pulled in hook, line and sinker by former Sen. Warren Rudman’s deficit obsessions,” says economist Larry Kudlow.
Mr. McCain has done just about everything you can do wrong in a presidential campaign. But try telling that to the Washington news media, which still thinks this is a competitive race.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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