By TIM NICKENS
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 28, 1999
The size of the field of Republican presidential candidates held steady Monday, yet the quality improved substantially.
Dan Quayle can't spell, but he can read and count. The handwriting on the wall said the former vice president didn't have a prayer of winning the nomination even if he somehow united conservatives. He also didn't have the money to compete against front-runner George W. Bush or overcome David Letterman's jokes.
As Quayle became the fourth Republican to give up chasing Bush, Arizona Sen. John McCain officially jumped into the race. McCain brings to the table everything Quayle lacked: respect, favorable media coverage and a realistic shot at becoming the alternative to Bush.
Among many Bush supporters, McCain is viewed as the greatest potential threat. Steve Forbes has the personal fortune to compete with Bush financially but no public service credentials. Elizabeth Dole has the familiar name, but her campaign has not gotten off the ground.
"The press is much more willing to give McCain a ride than Elizabeth," said Tom Rath, a Concord, N.H., lawyer who joined the Bush camp when Lamar Alexander dropped out of the race.
McCain has the experience and classic clean-cut image of the prototypical Republican presidential candidate.
He is a genuine war hero, a survivor of more than five years in a Vietnam prison who has a new book in which he recounts the torture without sounding like a shameless self-promoter. He can talk about his love of freedom, as he did Monday in his announcement speech in New Hampshire, without pandering.
McCain favors tax cuts, testing tuition vouchers and, of course, a strong national defense. He is against government waste and abortion. His only brush with trouble was as a bit player in the Keating Five banking scandal, and he wasn't found guilty of any wrongdoing.
McCain can attack Bush where he is most vulnerable. As a soldier and a senator, he has more experience with national defense issues than anyone else in the Republicans field.
Meanwhile, the Texas governor continues to be dogged by questions about how he became a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. He also is regularly reminded of his early misstatements, such as calling Kosovars the "Kosovians."
While those gaffes ultimately may prove harmless, Bush was forced again Monday to deny he or his father asked anyone to make calls on his behalf to get him into the Guard. He also has tried to inoculate himself by delivering a major defense policy speech last week at The Citadel, the South Carolina military school.
None of that will stop McCain.
He did not have to mention Bush's name to drive home his message Monday. The Naval Academy graduate, whose father and grandfather were admirals, said he is the only candidate qualified to be commander-in-chief.
"There comes a time," McCain said, "when our nation's leader can no longer rely on briefing books and talking points, when the experts and the advisers have all weighed in, when the sum total of one's life becomes the foundation from which he or she makes the decisions that determine the future of our democracy."
Whether national defense can boost McCain may depend on whether there is another international crisis between now and the New Hampshire primary in February. Foreign policy does not generally decide elections, and there are indications that voters' interest is not as high as it was at the height of the crisis in Kosovo.
A University of New Hampshire poll in May found 9 percent of voters there listed foreign policy as their top issue, and another 9 percent listed Kosovo. The combined 18 percent topped even education (14 percent) as the most important problem presidential candidates should address.
In the same poll earlier this month, Kosovo did not register as an issue, foreign policy had dropped to 3 percent and education had risen to 20 percent.
For McCain to have a shot at threatening Bush, he has to do extremely well in New Hampshire. That puts him in the same position as the Democrats' underdog, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.
In some ways, McCain and Bradley are offering similar pitches as they go after many of the same New Hampshire voters. They are the two loudest voices among the candidates for campaign finance reform. They are each running against the status quo and portraying themselves as outsiders even though both spent years in the Senate.
In New Hampshire, there are nearly as many independent voters as Republicans, and independents can vote in either primary election. Both Bradley and McCain will need plenty of votes from independents to do well, and it is unclear where those voters will fall.
"Independents are very unpredictable," Rath said. "They tend to go where the action is. They'll look for a race."
Now the race is in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, where Bradley and Vice President Al Gore are neck-and-neck. The University of New Hampshire poll showed 45 percent of Republican primary voters back Bush, 15 percent support Dole, 12 percent back McCain and 10 percent favor Forbes.
One bright spot for McCain as he tries to break out of the pack: More than a quarter of likely Republican primary voters have never heard of him.
He has four months to introduce himself.