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Bush is confident S.C. 'fire wall' can contain McCain

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 19, 2000


GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Karl Rove, the top strategist for George W. Bush, showed up on the campaign plane Friday morning wearing a firefighter's jacket and helmet.

"This is the fire wall!" he shouted. "This is the fire wall!"

By tonight, we'll know if it is still standing.

South Carolina's establishment Republicans turned out on other primary election days to save Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and even Bush's father from insurgents. The Texas governor is counting on their fire wall now to stop Arizona Sen. John McCain and re-establish himself as the overwhelming favorite.

After a tense week in the Bush camp, a USA Today-CNN poll released Friday put Bush ahead 52 percent to 40 percent.

"Gosh, I hope your newspaper's right," Bush told a USA Today reporter first thing Friday morning in the lobby of the Charleston Place Hotel.

The race feels much closer than the poll suggests, and South Carolina officials predict a record voter turnout.

Appearing more relaxed and confident, Bush predicted he would win today. He also had predicted he would win New Hampshire before losing to McCain by an astounding 18 percentage points.

South Carolina is not New Hampshire. The Granite State is known for its independent streak and affection for mavericks. The land of red clay and live oaks draped with Spanish moss has always preferred the safer candidates.

Bush notices the difference.

"I feel a little warmer, if you know what I mean," he told reporters after one of four rallies. "There is an intensity level that seems different to me."

The Texas governor's approach is as different as the two states.

He has worked harder here, answering more questions from voters and relying on fewer stunts like the sledding and bowling expeditions in New Hampshire.

The campaign schedule is fuller. The speeches are more intense. The attacks on McCain are tougher.

"I didn't like getting knocked down in the snow," Bush said. "I got a feisty side to me, and I wanted people to see that I was going to fight for the vote."

As Bush and McCain held feel-good rallies, the behind-the-scenes effort focused on turning out voters today. Unlike Florida, all voters can cast ballots in the South Carolina Republican primary. Bush needs Republicans and conservative independents to offset the moderate independents and Democrats expected to support McCain.

"We are starting a revolution; we are starting a reform party," McCain declared Friday. "This campaign is about reforming the government, about forming a new party and making it like when Teddy Roosevelt was the leader and when Ronald Reagan was leader, a party that says, "Come on in.' "

Countered Bush, who won considerable support among Hispanic and black Democrats in Texas: "If he's interested in attracting new faces and new voices to the party, give me a chance to be the nominee. I've been successful at that."

Bush has mailed 300,000 fliers to Republicans, Democrats and independents, accusing McCain of being inconsistent. One side of the flier is headlined: "John McCain says one thing and does another," mentioning such things as talking up campaign finance reform but taking big money contributions. Other letters from Elizabeth Dole and Bush's mother, Barbara, were sent to women.

Thousands of calls with taped messages from Bush; the governor's wife, Laura; and South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond also are being made. Bush also is getting plenty of help from abortion rights opponents, who contend McCain's campaign finance reforms would harm their organizations.

To combat McCain's war hero status, Bush traveled with a Medal of Honor winner and a Texas congressman who, like McCain, is a former POW. He even claims he will beat McCain among veterans here.

Is that based on statistics or gut feeling?

"Gut," Bush answered.

As always on the last day of campaigning before elections, Bush sought to end on an upbeat note. He passed up a chance to criticize McCain for calling his Vietnamese captors "gooks."

"I wouldn't use the word," Bush finally said.

Laura Bush, who arrived in South Carolina Thursday night, even talked with reporters during an airplane ride Friday morning -- a first according to Texas reporters.

Mrs. Bush assured everyone that her husband telephones their 18-year-old twin daughters each night. She said the couple knew what to expect from a national campaign after living through those of Bush's father.

"Ninety-two was the year when George would get up and get the newspaper, we lived in Dallas at the time . . . I remember the anxiety I felt," she recalled as she stood in the aisle of the plane. "I remember very well how President Bush was characterized in a way that he wasn't."

Now, she's not sure the national media is accurately portraying her husband. The people who know him best, such as Texans and other governors, like him best, Mrs. Bush said.

No controversy here.

There was an odd moment in Clinton, of all places. Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma offered a peculiar introduction for Bush.

"In order to be a good president, I don't believe you have to be a foreign or domestic policy wonk," Watts said. "You can buy foreign and domestic policy wonks by the dozens in Washington. . . . You don't have to be clever to be a good president. You can buy clever."

"The thing that defines a good president is decency," he said. "You can't buy decency."

That is a peculiar way of advocating a vote for Bush, whose intellectual curiosity often has been questioned.

But the question today is not about issues but politics. If Bush wins, he will stop the bleeding. If McCain wins, the Texas governor will need more than accolades about his decency to right his campaign.

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