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Even in defeat, McCain changes campaigning

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2000


CHARLESTON, S.C. -- There are some idealists who, in recent weeks, started to view Sen. John McCain as the first in a new generation of politicians who -- in the words of Czech President Vaclav Havel -- would have "the courage to go the way one's conscience points."

Among them was Jim Muncaster, a Bronze Star veteran and Republican chairman in Sumter County, S.C., who was moved to tears when he tried to explain why he thought the former Vietnam POW would make a heroic president.

G.E. "Spud" Carpenter, a retiree, was so taken by McCain that he drove all the way to South Carolina from his home in suburban Minneapolis two weeks ago to stuff envelopes and make phone calls on the senator's behalf.

And, of course, Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the up-and-comer who served as a House impeachment manager, risked angering many potential supporters for his likely 2002 Senate bid by campaigning for McCain. At times, Graham even suggested McCain had been anointed by God.

Because many McCain supporters are so genuinely awed by him, the sense of disappointment was palpable inside the cavernous Charleston Convention Center on Saturday night as their candidate acknowledged defeat in a primary he had portrayed as make-or-break in his battle for the GOP nomination.

Yet despite what was a big setback, McCain is not leaving the race -- not on your life.

Aides say he will continue to be as competitive as possible against Texas Gov. George W. Bush next week in the Michigan and Arizona primaries, and he is certain to stay in the race until the last vote is counted in the decisive multistate primary on March 7.

"This was an aberration here, I believe, as a result of all the money that Bush spent in South Carolina," declared Graham after the results were announced. "We are still ahead in Michigan and Arizona, and we're going to win there."

But even if McCain ultimately loses the GOP nomination -- which now seems more likely -- the emotion and excitement his campaign has stirred in a broad cross-section of Republicans, Democrats and independents will not soon be forgotten by politicians in Washington or elsewhere.

In fact, pieces of McCain's self-styled reform crusade are already showing up in the Bush campaign, and you can be sure that the so-called Straight Talk Express will become the model for a variety of political efforts in the future.

Because McCain came from far behind to challenge a candidate embraced by the party establishment, his insurgency is seen by many analysts as the wave of the future.

What seems to be most appealing about McCain, according to those voters who cast their ballots for him in South Carolina and New Hampshire, is a rare combination of genuine military heroism and his unconventional habit of taking on issues that other politicians see as dangerous.

Of course, very few candidates can serve up the same war stories as a man who was shot down over Hanoi and spent 51/2 years held captive by the Vietnamese. But it would not be hard for other politicians to mimic his somewhat unvarnished, moderately principled style.

In the final analysis, however, McCain made one big blunder that cost him the victory he needed in South Carolina.

Just when he had convinced many of his idealistic supporters that he would not stoop to the negative or pandering type of politics that he was running against, he aired a nasty little television ad that compared Bush's integrity to that of President Clinton.

Not only did that ad give Bush an excuse to respond with his own negative ads, but it also punctured McCain's image as a political reformer. Clearly, McCain learned a bitter lesson from the hostile reaction to his ad.

In an effort to correct his mistake, he promptly pledged never again to engage in negative campaigning -- a pledge he repeated in his concession speech on Saturday night.

"I am going to keep fighting clean, I am going to keep fighting fair, and I'm going to keep fighting the battle of ideas," he said. "I am a uniter, not a divider. I don't just say it, I live it. I am a real reformer."

The big question now is whether McCain still can reclaim the high ground or whether his foray into politics-as-usual will disillusion many of those who wanted to see him as a different kind of presidential candidate.

As the campaign moves on to Michigan and Arizona, it will be even harder for McCain to keep his pledge to run a positive, high-toned campaign. Already, Bush is running negative ads attacking him in Michigan. These ads are certain to irritate the hot-tempered McCain.

Even as he was complimenting Bush on his victory in South Carolina, McCain's speech had a strident, bitter undertone that is becoming more and more characteristic of his campaign appearances.

"I congratulate Gov. Bush on his victory here and wish him a happy celebration and a good night's rest," McCain said. "He's going to need it my friends, for we have just begun to fight and I cannot wait for the next round."

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