- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2000

Well, well, so John McCain proved once again that if you spend nearly a year campaigning in New Hampshire, you can win the Republican presidential primary there.
New Hampshire's voters love to be courted, and the state is small enough that an ambitious candidate can move up there, go to 114 town meetings, and blow the front-runner out of the water. Mr. McCain has virtually lived in the state since last April, while George Bush did not show up until late in the year and then insulted the voters by skipping the first debates. Mr. McCain's big all-or-nothing gamble paid off with a jackpot victory that sent him off to South Carolina hoping to score another upset on Feb. 19.
Still, it is hard to remember the last time that kind of one-state strategy paid off for an insurgent presidential candidate who was chasing a party front-runner.
Pat Buchanan also spent more than a year in New Hampshire in 1996, and succeeded in defeating the GOP front-runner, Bob Dole. But the pugnacious pundit never won another primary, while Mr. Dole went on to win the nomination. Paul Tsongas, who lived just over the state line in Massachusetts, defeated Bill Clinton there, too, but he was rolled by the Arkansas governor in the primaries that followed.
Gary Hart won there, but he could not overtake Walter Mondale in 1984. Eugene McCarthy made a strong showing, too, one that drove a president from office, but it didn't get Mr. McCarthy the nomination.
Political pundits have been analyzing the exit polls to figure out why Mr. Bush lost, but the more pertinent questions to ask are "Who was McCain appealing to?" and "Did the voters who gave him his victory mirror the GOP faithful who, in the end, will determine their presidential nominee in the party primaries to come?"
It is clear the New Hampshire voters who gave Mr. McCain his large victory margin were not Republicans. New Hampshire has an open primary system, which means the state's large and growing independent bloc of voters who account for 40 percent of all eligible voters can vote in the GOP primary. And these swing voters went heavily for Mr. McCain.
Most of these admittedly Democratic-leaning voters were not attracted to Mr. Bush's more traditional, conservative Republican message of deeper tax cuts and limited government. Voter exit polls showed many of them said they often vote Democratic but were drawn to Mr. McCain because they liked his image as an independent, combative person who is fighting to shake up the governing establishment, including those in his own party.
Once a GOP bastion of Yankee conservatism, New Hampshire has been trending Democratic in the last decade. The governorship, attorney general and secretary of state are all in Democratic hands. So is the statehouse.
One of the reasons for this change is the wave of Democratic-leaning and independent-minded Massachusetts voters who have migrated there to escape the Bay State's higher income and property taxes. There is no income tax in New Hampshire.
In the end, Mr. McCain's victory was forged by these independents, who found his support for the Clinton-backed Patient Bill of Rights, the Clinton-backed campaign-finance bill, and his own Clinton-cloned tax bill (which cuts no tax rates) closer to their liking.
Mr. Bush said Mr. McCain sounded like a Democrat, and indeed he did. In a state where independents, with no allegiance to either party, are the biggest voting bloc, his anti-establishment, reformist message was aimed right at these voters.
But Mr. Bush made a number of blunders, too. He must correct them if he is to recover his footing. He did not have a coherent theme or message. His campaign was big on photo-ops but short on the kind of sound bites that define his candidacy and energize his supporters.
Mr. McCain at every opportunity kept repeating "reform" and kept attacking "the special interests," constantly defining himself and his mission. Mr. Bush does not seem to have a strategic mission or a compelling rationale for why he is running for president and what the larger goal of a Bush presidency would be.
Yes, he wants to cut tax rates and restore dignity and respect to the Oval Office, which has been tarnished by scandal. But what does he want to do to government? There is no talk of cutting waste, no mention of letting workers invest some of their Social Security payroll taxes in personal retirement accounts, and little or no talk about lifting our moral values and our culture to a higher ground.
Although Mr. Bush is an outsider seeking to change the way things are done in Washington, he actually let Mr. McCain who has spent his political career in Washington define himself as the outsider.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan attacked the governing establishment and tax-and-spend liberals, declaring he wanted to unleash the power of the marketplace and restore America to greatness again at home and abroad.
Mr. Bush needs to find similarly stirring words to awaken and summon the GOP to an equally challenging mission to greatness. If he doesn't, he will lose.

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

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