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The expected -- and unexpected

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 9, 2000


MANCHESTER, N.H. -- In the first week of the election year, presidential politics offered both the predictable and the unexpected.

Elizabeth Dole endorsed George W. Bush. Ted Kennedy endorsed Vice President Al Gore. If Dole or Kennedy, both failed presidential candidates themselves, had endorsed anyone else, that would have been news.

In the sideshows, Warren Beatty decided not to run for president. The Reform Party got a new chairman, Jack Gargan of Cedar Key, but still could not agree on whether to hold its convention in California or Jesse Ventura's Minnesota. Put Ventura and Ross Perot in the ring and let them fight it out.

In the main event, there were four debates in four days that did not dramatically alter the dynamics of the races. Gore and Bill Bradley became more aggressive and less patient with each other, evidence of the closeness of the contest for the Democratic nomination.

On the Republican side, debates won't be illuminating until reality sets in for the four dwarfs: Steve Forbes, Orrin Hatch, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes.

In a front-page editorial headlined "We apologize," the Manchester Union Leader complained Friday that debate moderator Tim Russert of NBC focused too much on Bush and John McCain Thursday night. But until those pretenders give up, Bush will be able to avoid long, detailed exchanges like those between Gore and Bradley.

Which brings us to John McCain.

The Republican senator from Arizona provided the unexpected twist of the week. It turns out the reformer and chief critic of politics-as-usual wrote a letter he never should have sent.

The letter, first reported in the Boston Globe, was sent by McCain to the Federal Communications Commission Dec. 10. He bluntly demanded that the FCC vote on an issue involving a Pittsburgh TV station and a major contributor.

The contributor, Paxson Communications, is based in West Palm Beach and is the largest owner of independent television stations. Chairman Lowell "Bud" Paxson co-founded the St. Petersburg-based Home Shopping Network in 1982.

McCain has flown on Paxson planes to campaign events and raised $20,000 from Paxson associates. He oversees the FCC as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

McCain did not demand that the FCC vote in favor of Paxson, as several members of Congress did. He did insist that the FCC, one of Washington's slower-moving bureaucracies, vote promptly or explain why, and FCC officials were not pleased.

The timing of the revelation was particularly awkward for McCain. The Globe's story was published the same day McCain delivered a major speech on citizenship at the Manchester Boys and Girls Club and renewed his call for reforms to stop special interests from controlling government.

Answering questions from the audience, McCain took an indirect shot at Bush for failing to agree with McCain's call to ban soft money, the unlimited contributions to political parties.

"Until the last breath I draw," McCain declared, "I will fight to give the government back to the American people."

Or, apparently, fight government on behalf of a campaign contributor. In the back of the room, reporters were waiting to pounce on the letter to the FCC. McCain's bus -- "The Straight Talk Express" -- idled outside.

"McCain has never said he's not trapped in a system he's trying to change," argued McCain consultant Mike Murphy. "We think it's much ado about nothing."

Ted Koppel didn't think so.

Less than 10 hours later, Koppel grilled McCain on ABC's Nightline. McCain smiled tightly and refused to concede he did anything wrong.

Bush didn't think the letter was nothing, either. The following morning, he was telling listeners that reformers ought to live up to the high standards they promote and that McCain should answer some questions.

By then, McCain already had canceled a West Palm Beach fundraiser with Paxson that had been scheduled for Saturday.

The first question McCain fielded in Thursday night's debate was about the letter. He denied any wrongdoing and said the incident underscores the need for change.

"The reason why I've worked so hard for campaign finance reform -- because all this money washing around Washington, and all these uncontrolled contributions taint all of us," McCain said. "No matter what we do, we are under a cloud of suspicion. And I am one of those as well."

The problem is not so much what McCain wrote. Members of Congress write such letters routinely. Many of them demand a lot more from regulatory agencies than McCain did.

But those members of Congress aren't running for president on a platform to change the system and reduce the influence of special interests. Candidates who run as reformers have to hold themselves to higher standards if they want to keep their credibility and avoid being accused of hypocrisy.

The FCC letter serves as another reminder that opinion polls taken weeks before an election mean little. Unexpected events like this one can alter contests in a day, although it is too early to determine how badly McCain has wounded himself with his own pen.

McCain is not competing with Bush in the Iowa caucuses Jan. 24. McCain's entire strategy is based on winning New Hampshire Feb. 1, then building momentum to win South Carolina on Feb. 19 and Michigan and his home state of Arizona Feb. 22.

Otherwise, Bush will coast to the nomination with his fat bank account and superior nationwide campaign organization.

"Realistically, we have to win here," McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said. "If we don't win here, it's 70-30 against us in South Carolina."

McCain can only hope New Hampshire voters forget all about the FCC letter by Feb. 1 and remember instead the tag line of one of his television commercials: "The character to do what's right and the courage to fight for it."

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