- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2000

NASHUA, N.H. John McCain's margin of victory yesterday over George W. Bush surprised both men and everyone in their camps, but the big test comes Feb. 19.

That's when South Carolina holds the first primary in the South. The McCain goal this morning is to whittle the 18-point Bush lead in South Carolina to 10 to 15 points within a week. It won't be easy.

Mr. McCain led in most polls in New Hampshire, as he campaigned almost nonstop for weeks, holding 114 town hall meetings across the state. He skipped the first political test of the presidential-nomination battle, the Iowa caucuses, where Mr. Bush spent much of last month.

"McCain always said it was critical to win here," said New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Steve Duprey. "Now the question becomes: Can he win the other self-proclaimed 'must win' South Carolina."

Polls have shown Mr. Bush with a strong 18 percentage point lead in South Carolina, where nearly everyone in the state Republican establishment is solidly behind him.

The McCain win in New Hampshire was expected, but the size of it was nothing short of stunning. "This is an outstanding win for Sen. McCain, no matter how you look at it," Mr. Duprey said.

Independent pollster John Zogby calls the results "a blowout." He said, "It's amazing. Over half the voters in New Hampshire considered themselves to be conservative or very conservative, and McCain won among conservatives."

The margin shows that Mr. Bush will not walk away with the nomination, he says.

"The New Hampshire results show that, at the very least, Bush will have to work very hard to win this nomination. He will have to fight for his life in South Carolina," Mr. Zogby says.

One reason Mr. McCain did so well in New Hampshire is that independents but not Democrats could vote in the Republican primary. Exit polls showed the senator to be the favorite of Republican-leaning independents.

"New Hampshire is well situated for John McCain," social conservative William J. Bennett last night said on CNN. "But South Carolina is going to be very, very interesting."

Mr. McCain has a chance to draw even more support from outside the Republican Party in South Carolina, where both independents and Democrats can vote in the primary.

The state further has one of the highest concentrations of military personnel and veterans strong supporters of Mr. McCain, the Vietnam war hero. There's also has a high-tech industry, suburban sprawl and a core of new voters, many of them newcomers from the North and Midwest who often vote as independents.

Mr. McCain's New Hampshire victory will test the expectations of McCain strategists who say they can now raise enough money to be competitive with Mr. Bush in South Carolina and in the Michigan primary Feb. 22. In their enthusiasm bordering on euphoria they predict victories not only in Mr. McCain's home state of Arizona but perhaps even in California and other states that hold primaries on March 7.

But back on solid ground, first there's South Carolina. If he wins there, he's counting on donors to take a second look at him, and come across with the cash that will preserve his candidacy going into the expensive campaigns in the really big states, California and New York.

Skipping Iowa was a strategy to remain competitive in these other states. "Part of not being in Iowa is it gives us the money to compete in South Carolina," campaign spokesman Howard Opinsky says.

"McCain made a riverboat gamble and won. He put all his chips on New Hampshire and ran a perfect campaign," said Larry McCarthy, a consultant who is not aligned with any of the GOP contenders.

"He gets so much bounce that he's automatically propelled into a horserace," Mr. McCarthy added, "but he's not in the financial horserace." Mr. Bush still has a huge edge in money, with more than $67 million in his coffers.

In South Carolina, Mr. McCain will have aggressive help from two local Republican congressmen, Rep. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Mark Sanford, who appeared on stage with the candidate in New Hampshire in front of their state flag.

Mr. Graham wants the senator to focus on "what John wants to do with the [federal budget] surpluses as a point of reference. John is saying, 'Pay down the [national] debt.' The Democrats want to spend it, George W. Bush wants to give it all away in tax cuts. Build on that, take it to the issue of the military and campaign-finance reform."

The New Hampshire win also may set Republicans to rethinking whether across-the-board tax cuts should be the defining theme of the 2000 presidential contest. Tax cuts the party's unifying theme for years have been embraced by the Bush campaign but eschewed by Mr. McCain.

"Three out of four people aren't worried about the size of the tax cut," said Mr. Graham. "They want to get out of debt and save Social Security. Look what Bush's ads were at the end: They're focusing on debt retirement and Social Security. He's changed his whole ad strategy."

Other McCain strategists argue that despite the party establishment's dislike of Mr. McCain's tax and campaign-finance views, Republican voters will come to understand that "we have a better chance in the general election with John, because he excites not only Republicans but independents."

But first, the senator has to win in South Carolina. What he accomplished here in New Hampshire was making himself a serious contender. Now comes the hard part.

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