- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2000

The energetic and sometimes bitter campaign battle between Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain holds important clues for Republicans looking for victory in November. To win in 2000, GOP strategists must isolate what was appealing about John McCain and determine the best way to incorporate it into their fall campaigns.

There are three types of McCain voters: activist Democrats, sound-bite voters, and image voters.

The activist Democrats are the easiest to dispatch. They have no carryover impact on the fall election. Whether through an organized effort, simple mischievous intent, or the belief that Mr. McCain is the second best choice, these voters belong to Al Gore in November; they always have, and they always will. Unfortunately, the GOP is probably going to spend the bulk of its time trying to figure out how to deal with these voters rather than the ones it can win over.

There are the sound-bite voters. These are not issue voters who respond based on in-depth study and analysis. They are moved by slogans and messages that reinforce their own deeply held opinions and beliefs.

They responded to the McCain rhetoric about government which was also central to the Reagan coalition and that motivated the disaffected and the Perot voters. At the center of these ideas are the senator's calls for campaign-finance reform.

These voters are certain that Washington does not work on their behalf and they sense the need for reform. The institutions of government, the dollars collected through taxes and tariffs, the very nature of the political system works to someone's benefit, just not theirs. The McCain message of getting the special interests out of Washington strikes a deep chord with them because they want the government cleaned-up and to work for them, not against them.

These same voters were, for the same reasons, inspired to go to the polls by the 1994 Contract with America. Its implicit promise to clean up the corruption in Congress, exemplified by the House bank and the House post office scandals, was a tremendous selling point in favor of GOP candidates.

As sound-bite voters, they are more concerned about the message than they are about the details of any one plan to accomplish the goal.

Lastly, there are the image voters. They respond not to the message articulated by any one candidate, but by what the image of the candidate articulating the message represents.

In Mr. McCain's case, he is born of an important military family, an accomplished U.S. senator, an Annapolis graduate, and, by virtue of his incarceration in North Vietnam, a bona-fide war hero.

He is the embodiment of duty, honor, country. He stands in stark contrast to the current administration, which might as well proclaim, "if it feels good, do it" as its operational model.

The American people might not have wanted Bill Clinton removed from office for the Monica Lewinsky affair, or for a host of other misdeeds proven and suggested that have been perpetrated over the last eight years. But, as the rush of independents to John McCain strongly suggests, they are looking for a president who will not drag them through that mud again. With his military bearing and Mr. Clean image, Mr. McCain fits that bill.

Then there is the contrast between Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush and the vice president. Messrs. Gore and Bush are the heirs of important American political families. The American system does not, generally, embrace national political dynasties.

There is, fairly or not, the sense that Al Gore and George Bush are where they are not because of who they are but because of who dad and granddad were. The American voter does not think of military dynasties in the same way as political dynasties.

More importantly, the affinity for Mr. McCain may also be a reaction to the perceived anointing of Mr. Bush as nominee long before the primary season began. The Ronald Reagan Republican Party is a bottom-up, grassroots party. Unlike the Democratic Party, it is not a top-down, elite cadre machine.

Republican candidates are expected to pay dues and earn their stripes and garner support the old-fashioned way by working hard for it. The anointing of Mr. Bush, like that of Bob Dole before him, goes down uneasily with grassroots Republicans who feel the party is theirs, not the property of some Washington elite group of businessmen and lawyers.

If the Republican Party is to win in November, gaining the White House and controlling both chambers of Congress for the first time since Ike in the 50s, it would do well to spend far more time trying to figure out how these ideas will play in the fall campaign and the place in the party for voters who feel this way.

If the GOP devotes itself to efforts to keep these voters out of the primary process in 2004, then the experience of the last few months will have taught it nothing, and Republicans will deserve to lose the majority status to which they tenuously cling today.

Peter Roff is a political strategist who can be seen frequently on MSNBC and the Fox News Channel.

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