- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2000

This round to Bush
South Carolinians should be thanked for giving us an illuminating glimpse into the character of both Republican presidential candidates. For the first time, we saw in the primary on Saturday Texas Gov. George W. Bush behave as though he wanted the presidency and knew he had to fight for it something that hasn't been altogether evident in his campaign style so far. Capturing 67 percent of self-described Republicans voters in a record-turnout, Mr. Bush received a crucial push towards the Republican nomination. This was one he had to win. Beating contender Sen. John McCain overwhelmingly with 53-42 percent of the total vote, Mr. Bush has now won three of the four contests yielding delegates, a total of 61 to Mr. McCain's 14. Mr. Bush has, as a consequence of the South Carolina experience, become a more assertive, more attractive Republican candidate, and he has shown those who were busy writing his political obituary after New Hampshire that they were rushing to judgment based on wish fulfillment rather than an actual assessment of the facts.
We also learned something about Sen. John McCain on Saturday. The senator is, of course, best known as a Vietnam War hero, a prisoner of war with a highly compelling personal story, a refreshing contrast to the draft-dodger-in-charge currently occupying the White House. The appeal of such a candidate speaking of self-sacrifice and idealism has been demonstrated by Mr. McCain's widespread appeal among independents and Democrats who have been able to vote in New Hampshire and South Carolina's primaries. There is, however, more to McCain the individual or less as the case may be. It was the latter that was on display in South Carolina after the polls closed.
For Mr. McCain's colleagues in Congress, who have stayed away from his campaign in droves, it may have been a moment of recognition rather than surprise. And the same may be true of the governor and newspaper editors in Mr. McCain's home state of Arizona, who are closely familiar with his personal style. However, for those who had not yet had a taste of the famous McCain temper, the senator's so-called "concession speech" should be a real eye opener. Being a gracious loser is hard, though Mr. Bush managed the trick following his defeat in New Hampshire. Even so, Mr. McCain sunk to a low Saturday night that stunned even hardened political reporters.
Following a bare-knuckles battle, in which Mr. McCain's own negative ads against Mr. Bush backfired badly when Mr. Bush fought back to set both his own and the senator's record straight, Mr. McCain proclaimed that he would be taking the high road to the presidency. "Aren't you proud of the campaign you just ran?" he asked supporters. "I am going to fight with every ounce of strength I have, but I am going to keep fighting clean."
Mr. McCain then proceeded to spend the remainder of his speech in an offensive, gutter-sniping attack on the character of his opponent:
"I want the presidency in the best way, not the worst way."
"I will never dishonor the nation I love or myself by letting ambition overcome principle."
"I am a uniter, not a divider. I don't just say it, I live it. I am a real reformer… . I don't just say it, I live it. And I am a fighter for this country, and I don't just say it, I live it."
"As this campaign moves forward, a clear choice will be offered: a choice between my optimistic and welcoming conservatism and the negative message of fear between Ronald Reagan's vision of inclusion and the defeatist tactics of exclusion so cherished by those who would shut the doors to our party and surrender America's future to Speaker Gephardt and President Al Gore a choice between a record of reform and an empty slogan of reform, a choice between experience and pretense."
Cleverly, Mr. McCain left out the Texas governor's name, who is presumably the candidate who campaigns in "the worst way"; who lets "ambition overcome principle"; who "divides" Americans; who merely "says" he will fight for this country; who has a "negative" message of "fear" and "defeatists tactics"; who would "surrender America's future" to the Democrats; whose slogan of reform is "empty," who only "pretends" to be who he says he is. Had Mr. McCain actually spoken Mr. Bush's name, the whole performance would have sounded less hypocritical. Obviously, having realized his mistake in renouncing negative ads, Mr. McCain decided to pull no punches in Michigan's primary tomorrow. Fine. Just let's not pretend that we are traveling the "high road" here.
By contrast, Mr. Bush's victory speech set a very different tone, counting down to the end of "Clinton-Gore." Having established his conservative credentials and having dealt Mr. McCain a crippling blow by suggesting he was subverting the Republican primary by drawing in Democrats and independents, Mr. Bush can now afford to take aim at the real target, "Clinton-Gore." He spoke of the "soft bigotry of low expectations" by which Democrats let minority children fail, and he denounced "the highest taxes in America since World War II." Combining a subtle response to Mr. McCain's attack and a dig at President Clinton, Mr. Bush said, "I make my decisions based upon principle not based upon polls and focus groups."
It may be recalled that it was Mr. McCain's attack ad comparing Mr. Bush to Bill Clinton that started the whole row in South Carolina. How is that for a Clinton legacy, when the name of the president becomes the ultimate insult?

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