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McCain brings back Republican Big Tent

Democrats and independents, the voters who helped elect Reagan, are key for McCain today in S.C. and a threat to Bush.

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 19, 2000


COLUMBIA, S.C. -- John and Carol Brunswick are lifelong Democrats who plan to vote for Sen. John McCain in today's Republican primary.

To some Republicans, especially supporters of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Brunswicks and other pro-McCain Democrats are political spoilers intent on causing mischief for the GOP.

"I don't believe they are sincere or genuine," says Warren Thompkins, who is running Bush's South Carolina campaign. "These are people who have never voted Republican in their life. They see it as a way to mess up the Republican Party."

But other Republicans, including McCain supporters, see the Brunswicks as potential new recruits who could help broaden the Republican Party for the first time since Ronald Reagan won over many Democrats in the early 1980s.

"Something amazing is happening here," says Richard Quinn, McCain's top South Carolina strategist. "What McCain is doing is rebuilding the old Reagan coalition."

No matter who wins here, the South Carolina primary will have served to expose this deeper debate between Republican leaders who want to protect the status quo and insurgents who want to broaden the party's appeal. Fundamentally, the Bush-McCain rivalry is not only a quest for the nomination, but also a battle over the character of the Grand Old Party.

The Brunswicks insist they are not mischiefmakers. The local couple says they are crossing over to the GOP this year out of a genuine desire to see McCain as president.

"McCain is an honest man," says John Brunswick, a university librarian. "I like it that he's not your traditional politician."

Would the Brunswicks vote Republican in November?

Yes, but only if McCain is the nominee. "I wouldn't vote for George Bush under any circumstances," says Carol, a credit union examiner.

She says the likely Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore, does not inspire her as much as McCain, but "he doesn't turn me off" as much as Bush does.

Would the Brunswicks consider joining the Republican Party if McCain wins the presidency? They don't know. "That's a long way away," says John.

It is perhaps no coincidence that this debate over new recruits to the Republican Party has come to light in South Carolina, where native son Lee Atwater -- the late political strategist for President George Bush -- developed his "Big Tent" plan to embrace voters not traditionally identified with the party.

The Bush campaign's efforts to suppress turnout among Democrats and independents seem to run counter to the Big Tent concept, which the younger Bush advocated at the outset of his presidential campaign.

"I have found this discussion troubling; it is not the way to grow a party," says David Winston, an Atwater disciple who is a Republican pollster in Washington. "It is always better for a party to have more people participate in the process."

In fact, no Republican nominee can win the presidency without the help of independents and Democrats.

According to polling by the Pew Research Center, Republicans make up 27 percent of the electorate. Of the remainder, 30 percent is Democrat; 34 percent is independent; 6 percent has no preference; and 1 percent belongs to a third party.

The influence of independents and Democrats is confounding the pollsters, who have no way of knowing how many non-Republicans will vote in South Carolina today. McCain overwhelmingly won the New Hampshire primary by appealing to independents and disaffected Democrats, and his base support in South Carolina is even more dependent upon these outsiders.

The most recent Gallup Poll, which shows Bush leading McCain 52-40, assumes that 40 percent of the voters will be Democrats and independents. But Gallup officials admit they are guessing on turnout.

Republican insiders say South Carolina's GOP leaders are unhappy about McCain's broader appeal not only because they support Bush, but because they see the outsiders as a threat to their local leadership. It is understandable, Winston says, that they would protect their power.

Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the state Democratic Party, has a less sympathetic view. He says the state's Republican leaders are part of a country club crowd that looks down on Democrats and independents who may not be as well-heeled and may have some traditionally Democratic concerns.

"The Republicans want to expand their party," Harpootlian says. "They want the image of opening the party up, but they don't want the discussion that comes with that about race and culture.

"They'd like to have a few more blacks and Hispanics at their cocktail party. But they want those folks to talk about their golf handicap and how hard it is to get help these days. They don't want to talk about how the paint is peeling from the walls of our schools."

Under Atwater's Big Tent, Republicans were encouraged to reach out to like-minded conservatives in the Hispanic and African-American communities. In South Carolina, however, minorities still cling to the Democratic Party.

Like the Brunswicks, most of the Democrats being drawn to the Republican primary by McCain are middle-class whites and political centrists. If they were to become Republicans, they would probably try to pull the party to the center.

Thompkins says his party is looking for Reagan Democrats, not McCain Democrats.

"These are true Democrats, not Reagan Democrats," he says. "I'm all for reaching out to conservative Democrats, but there aren't that many conservative Democrats left. They have all become Republicans."

Harpootlian agrees. He predicts these voters will return to the Democratic fold in November because, in McCain, they are "looking for someone who's always voted his conscience -- they are looking for a Jimmy Stewart type who doesn't exist." He was referring to the fictional, principled politician in the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Quinn argues that the GOP should not spurn these voters just because they are not the Reagan Democrats of yesteryear. He notes that Reagan, like McCain, failed in his initial attempt in 1976 to persuade the party to nominate a candidate who would appeal to Democrats.

"This is either another 1980 or another 1976," he says.

If Bush wins the nomination, says Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director, he will try to reach out to McCain Democrats. She said that he received strong support from Democrats in his successful bid for re-election as governor of Texas in 1998.

For now, however, both men will continue to play the hands they have been dealt by appealing to the voters whose support they already have.

On Friday, McCain said: "We want everybody who shares our values and our goals to be part of our campaign. That includes Republicans, independents and what they used to call Reagan Democrats."

Bush said: "We'll find out who's going to attract independents and Democrats in the long run. . . . Who knows what is going to happen? There is nothing I can do except to rally my base supporters."

-- Times political editor Tim Nickens contributed to this report.

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