- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2000

In New Hampshire's Republican primary Tuesday, Sen. John McCain scored an impressive victory over GOP front-runner George W. Bush. Mr. McCain pulled ahead of Mr. Bush by a solid 49 percent to 30 percent margin, and in one fell swoop, Mr. McCain, whose strategy of bypassing the Iowa caucuses in order to focus on New Hampshire, was validated and destroyed the Texas governor's aura of inevitability. However, though wounded in New Hampshire, Mr. Bush still retains important advantages over Mr. McCain, including substantial leads in national polls, a financial advantage that approached $25 million at the end of 1999, and the overwhelming support of Republican governors.

Publisher Steve Forbes, who received only 13 percent of the vote, failed to get the bounce he expected from his Iowa second-place finish. Social conservatives Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer captured only 6 percent and 1 percent of the New Hampshire vote, respectively. If the past is any guide, such dismal performances signal imminent doom.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire's Democratic primary, Vice President Al Gore, drawing upon his advantage among Democratic loyalists, won a narrow 50-to-46 victory over former Sen. Bill Bradley, who reduced Mr. Gore's margin of victory by grabbing 55 percent of the votes from independents. His defeat may have been narrow, but Mr. Bradley, who immediately challenged Mr. Gore to weekly debates, clearly faces an uphill battle.

In demonstrating his appeal, at least in New Hampshire, Mr. McCain captured three times as many votes as Mr. Bush did from independents, who cast more than 40 percent of the ballots in the Republican primary. However, the Arizona senator also demonstrated impressive appeal across virtually every demographic category, all age groups, family-income groups and both sexes, according to voter exit surveys. Mr. Bush won among self-described Republicans (42 percent to 37 percent), who comprised 54 percent of the voters in the GOP primary. That proportion will grow larger in subsequent GOP primaries, where independent voters will not be as welcome as they were in New Hampshire.

In a period of peace and prosperity, voters in the GOP primary placed greater importance on "personal qualities" than on issues, a factor that significantly contributed to Mr. McCain's victory. For more than a third of the voters, "standing up" for what one believes was the most important candidate quality. Mr. McCain received 60 percent of their votes compared to 14 percent for Mr. Bush. Mr. McCain received 45 percent of the support of the nearly 20 percent of voters who identified "moral values" as the most important issue. By nearly a 3-to-1 margin, voters believed Mr. McCain was more likely than Mr. Bush to say what he believes. Needless to say, this ought to be a wake-up call for Mr. Bush that voters are not connecting with him on a personal level the way they ought to, not by a long shot.

The next major GOP battleground will be South Carolina, which has a history of providing a strong firewall for front-running candidates and stopping insurgent campaigns dead in their tracks. Most recently, for example, after losing to Patrick Buchanan in New Hampshire four years ago, front-runner Bob Dole regained his momentum in South Carolina. While Gov. Bush hopes to capitalize on the much bigger role born-again Christians will play in South Carolina, Mr. McCain, who was a prisoner of war for more than five years in North Vietnam, will be counting on his appeal to the state's 400,000 veterans.

In the Democratic race, the next major date will be March 7, when California, New York, Ohio and nine other states will hold their primaries. After incurring a punishing defeat in the Iowa caucuses and failing to upset Mr. Gore in New Hampshire, Mr. Bradley must now prepare to contest far less friendly states and perhaps face the fact that New Hampshire may have been the beginning of the end for his candidacy. For Messrs. Bush and McCain, on the other hand, New Hampshire may well signal the beginning of a tough and protracted race for the nomination.

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