By TIM NICKENS
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2000
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The fire wall still stands and so does George W. Bush.
The Texas governor bounced back by soundly defeating Arizona Sen. John McCain Saturday night in the Republican primary in South Carolina, the conservative Southern state renowned for boosting front-runners and squashing upstarts.
The wall that protected Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and Bush's father in other presidential primaries was tested like never before by McCain. But Bush reclaimed his front-runner status after losing in New Hampshire by repeatedly attacking the Arizona senator and appealing to conservatives.
Following a record voter turnout, Bush led McCain by 54 percent to 41 percent late Saturday, with long shot Alan Keyes at a distant 5 percent. Exit polls indicated Bush won two of three Republican voters, all age groups under 75, and split the veterans' vote with the former Vietnam POW.
"Tonight in South Carolina, we have ignited our cause and united our party," Bush said at his victory party in Columbia. "It's the victory of a message that is compassionate and conservative, and it's a victory for a messenger who is a reformer with results."
Despite the margin, it was not a knockout.
Rather than conciliatory, McCain's speech was remarkably combative. He lashed out at Bush for campaign tactics he labeled "a negative message of fear" and ridiculed the governor's new emphasis on reforms.
"I am not going to take the low road to the highest office in this land," McCain told supporters in Charleston. "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."
The Republican battle is expected to continue at least through March 7, when 16 states hold primaries or caucuses. The next tests come Tuesday in McCain's home state of Arizona, where McCain is expected to win, and in Michigan, where the race is tight despite Gov. John Engler's efforts on Bush's behalf.
"I wish him a happy celebration and a good night's rest. He's going to need it, my friends," McCain said, "for we have just begun to fight, and I cannot wait for the next round."
South Carolina, though, was Bush's turn to celebrate after an embarrassing loss to McCain in the nation's first primary in New Hampshire just 18 days ago.
Bush heard the initial exit polls early Saturday afternoon from consultant Karl Rove, then took a nap before running three miles with his media adviser. Still in running shorts with a white towel around his neck, he was working on his victory speech in his hotel suite more than two hours before the polls closed.
Bush barely mentioned McCain except to commend the senator and his supporters, an intentional contrast to McCain's complaints. Instead, the governor focused his remarks on President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, the likely Democratic nominee. He blamed the administration for high taxes, playing politics with Medicare and Social Security, and ill-preparing the military before alluding to Clinton's impeachment.
"Responsibility begins with leaders who behave responsibly," Bush said. "I will make sure when American parents and their children look at the White House they will see not an embarrassment, but an example of which they can be proud."
Conquering South Carolina, where Bush led by 20 points or more last month, proved more difficult than anticipated for the Texas governor and confirmed McCain's status as a serious challenger. This was a state Bush was supposed to win easily.
New Hampshire, which McCain won by an astounding 19 percentage points, was tailor-made for an insurgent like the Arizona senator who relies heavily on voters outside the Republican mainstream.
South Carolina, as it says on Bush's campaign bus, was expected to be "Bush country." Republicans are more conservative here, less likely to rock the boat and tough on insurgents. This is the home state of Lee Atwater, the late, legendary consultant who perfected slash-and-burn politics and created the early primary as a fire wall.
McCain's victory in New Hampshire tossed conventional wisdom aside and changed the dynamics. While the Arizona senator continued to court Republicans as well as Democrats and independents, who could vote in the GOP primary, Bush was forced to change strategies.
The Texas governor's aides concluded he had let McCain become the reform candidate even though Bush reformed education, juvenile justice and civil court laws in his state. Communications director Karen Hughes coined a new slogan for South Carolina: "the reformer with results."
After appearing insulated and aloof in New Hampshire, Bush copied McCain's practice of holding town meetings and answering questions from voters in South Carolina.
He also went on the attack.
In New Hampshire, he referred to McCain as his "buddy." In South Carolina, he all but called McCain a hypocrite. Bush described the Arizona senator as a candidate "who says one thing and does another" by calling for campaign reform while raising millions in contributions.
On television and in hundreds of thousands of pamphlets mailed to voters, Bush attacked McCain's truthfulness and questioned his Republican credentials.
"When he came in here and we sat down and talked about things, we said this is not going to be a gentle campaign," recalled former South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell, who helped lead the effort to turn out Republican voters for Bush.
Bush also refined his sales pitch for his tax cuts.
McCain proposes smaller tax cuts and emphasizes using most of the federal surplus for reducing the nation's debt and shoring up Social Security. That resonated with voters, so Bush quit emphasizing the size of his tax cut. Instead, he contended his plan would protect the booming economy, pay down the debt and prevent Congress from spending the money.
In the last week, McCain attempted to take the high road and pulled off all negative television ads. But the damage already had been done by spots in which he contended Bush "twists the truth like Clinton."
In Republican-dominated South Carolina, that is the worst slur possible. The comparison angered Bush and may have motivated more Republicans to go to the polls and support the Texas governor.
"That made her furious and me, too," said Anita Cathcart, a Spartanburg Republican, as her friend nodded in agreement. "That's just not true."
Exit polls showed McCain, not Bush, was considered the more negative campaigner. While two-thirds of the voters said Bush ran a positive campaign, half said McCain ran a negative one.
Despite all of the rhetoric, turnout decided the election Saturday.
Campbell and other old-line Republicans ensured their supporters were not overrun by Democrats and independents who favored McCain. Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, worked to bring out religious conservatives who make up an estimated 40 percent of the Republican electorate.
Early exit polls indicated 6 of 10 voters were Republicans, with the remaining four being Democrats and independents. Record turnout that was supposed to benefit McCain wound up helping Bush. McCain won among Republicans voting in a primary for the first time by just 53 percent to 42 percent; he needed to do much better.
Before dawn today both Bush and McCain were expected to land in snowbound Michigan, where Bush expects the South Carolina win to give him a boost. The weather offers a greater change than the strategies.
As McCain departs on a two-day bus trip on the Straight Talk Express, Bush is scheduled to speak in a church outside Grand Rapids before holding two town meetings in the Detroit area.
"What do you different," Rove, Bush's top strategist, asked rhetorically, "in three days?"