Insurgency's End

Why They Love McCain
Dorothy Rabinowitz
March 10, 2000;
Page A14

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BOSTON -- Those who had followed John McCain's campaign knew beforehand what was likely to happen on Super Tuesday. The message of the polls had grown more unpromising the last few days before March 7's crucial primaries. Still, none of this deterred the crowds waiting to cheer the candidate anywhere they could find him. They had waited, elated, at a Connecticut college auditorium packed to the rafters with people waving homemade McCain signs. They waited here early Saturday morning on blustery Copley Square -- the young, the old, people in wheelchairs, a wildly excited crowd whose rumblings built to a great roar as, finally, the senator emerged from his hotel to walk toward them.

It's possible to argue, of course, that a rally is a rally, that partisan crowds do like to come out to cheer their man. Yet there was something far from ordinary about these crowds, something exceptional in the way they looked at him and up to him -- in the feeling evident in their eyes, the emotion in the air -- something, in short, that we haven't seen on the political landscape for a very long time.

At the rally here, Sen. McCain makes some jokes, directs a few missiles at Clinton-Gore, the buying of elections, the lobbyists and special interests -- all enthusiastically received. Nevertheless, it is clear that who and what this candidate is matters at least as much to the crowd as what he says. What he is is an American hero and, moreover, a man who looks the part. People along his campaign route wave signs with just those two words: "American hero."

That who he is matters so much is particularly relevant in the wake of Tuesday's losses, as emissaries from the Republican Party establishment take to the TV circuit to praise the senator's honor and stature, his qualities of leadership -- which they seem suddenly to have discovered -- and, not least, his loyalty. The loyalty, they suggest -- they pray -- that will cause Mr. McCain to bring his crucial independent, moderate Republican and Democratic followers around. From these sources, as from opinion pages everywhere, flow suggestions about power and influence, the possibility of support for Mr. McCain's prime interests, such as campaign finance reform, that might be his if he embraced George W. Bush.

This may well be the scenario that emerges in the end, but it is not one Mr. McCain's supporters are likely to find inspiring. No one should count on these voters to flock quickly to Mr. Bush's banner because Mr. McCain has been granted influence and support for his issues. It isn't his issues his voters want. What they want is John McCain himself -- the candidate they are certain can win, and more to the point, the man they want as president.

His crowds flock to an airport hangar in Maine -- an exuberant throng giddy at the prospect of meeting the candidate. It is cold out here, but not, obviously, for Mr. McCain supporters, two of whom are standing around in shorts. One woman notes with some pride that this is balmy weather for Maine -- an explanation drowned out by the eruption of cheers and noise booming up from the crowd. The senator has made his way up to the platform and stands before them, touching off another riot of cheers, as people waving signs bearing the words "honor" and "courage."

In Syracuse, N.Y., a rapt assemblage crowds into a college auditorium, many of them pressing close to the rope in the hope he'll sign their copies of his book, "Faith of My Fathers." Spotting my media tags, one boy of 13 who has been standing quietly, clutching a small Bible, asks if I think Mr. McCain would sign it. He will, I inform him, not without authority. The senator has somehow managed to sign a tremendous number of the books thrust at him at rallies.

Rochester, N.Y., is the last stop of the day, and a late one -- the city's Vietnam memorial. In the cold and dark of this night its hard to imagine there will be many people gathering for an outdoor rally. But they are gathered all right, a stunning sight with the lights streaming on this huge assembly of citizens waving flags -- a crowd reverent in mood, given the memorial setting, but undeniably and extraordinarily excited nonetheless.

Looking down at the scene from our perch, a reporter bangs his fist down on the stone parapet and says: "Are the Republicans crazy? Look at this. They could have this guy as their candidate, and they want George W. Bush? I never voted for a Republican in my life, but I'd vote for this guy in a minute. Tell me -- what's wrong with them?"

In New York state, the senator's party now includes Long Island's Rep. Peter King, one of just two New York Republicans to defy the state party and take up for Mr. McCain -- Mr. King having done so the morning after Mr. McCain's loss in South Carolina. In another remote airport hangar, on grounds resembling some Siberian plain, Mr. McCain's crowds greet Mr. King with boisterous applause and call him "Governor King." In Cleveland Sen. Michael DeWine stands waiting on the tarmac, looking very much alone. He is indeed the only Ohio Republican, and one of only four U.S. senators, to support Sen. McCain. Still, Messrs. King and DeWine appear merry, and much buoyed by their roles as defiers of the established order. Cleveland -- where Mr. McCain was greeted by one of the most pumped up crowds of his campaign tour -- would be the final stop before California and the Tuesday that brought the end.

The day after Super Tuesday, media sages were available, as ever, to dispense wisdom about what went wrong, the ways in which Mr. McCain went "off message," his anger about the attack ads and so forth. It is highly doubtful in fact that voters inclined to support Mr. McCain could have been put off much by the sight of the senator pounding away at Mr. Bush and friends over the use of the attack ads that flooded New York's television screen last weekend, all paid for by a Texas ally of Mr. Bush.

Nor would they have been put off much by his similar tough reaction to radio spots suggesting, falsely, that Mr. McCain opposed funding for breast-cancer research -- a particularly cold-blooded piece of opportunism likely to stick to Mr. Bush and give him trouble in the near future among the centrist-independent voters he needs to win. Introduced in New York the weekend before the primary, the ads starred a political activist beholden to New York's governor, George Pataki. Indeed, Mr. Pataki -- evidently eager for a vice-presidential spot -- will long be remembered for this primary campaign that saw him give his all (including, initially, assiduous efforts to keep Mr. McCain off the ballot) to assure a New York victory for George W. Bush.

The victory achieved, along with those in primaries around the nation, Mr. Bush seems secure. Mr. McCain, who ended his campaign yesterday, remains the object of media meditations.

On Wednesday analysts chewed on Mr. McCain's annoyance, displayed, as his campaign's hardest day drew to an end (and as his daughter was being hit on the head with a boom mike), when NBC's Maria Shriver ran up and demanded to know, "How do you feel?" The senator responded by telling her to go away. He may have thus offended Ms. Shriver, but he surely endeared himself by this moment to a vast number of Americans.

Before saying his goodbye, the journalist who wanted to know what was wrong with the Republican party again marveled that they would reject "the most popular politician in America." He wasn't the only one raising the question on the Straight Talk Express -- in actuality a caravan of buses, not to mention the chartered plane, where the candidate sat on his aisle seat, in the middle of hordes of journalists and camera crews.

The Straight Talk Express has ended its run and it is indeed true that the most popular politician in America -- or at least, as polls attest, the one who could most easily beat Mr. Gore -- will not be the candidate of the Republican Party. Still it would be unwise to expect that John McCain -- the candidate who remade the primary season by rescuing it from the torpor which has been its chronic state for decades, who generated so much excitement and change and caused so many people to cross party lines for the chance to vote for him -- will be leaving the stage anytime soon.

Commentary 2001