New Hampshire Primary:

...And a Candidate Who Can Stand Up to Gore
Dorothy Rabinowitz
February 3, 2000;
Page A26

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References to New Hampshire's quirky voters and their propensity to reward maverick candidacies got quite a workout in the commentaries that followed Tuesday's primary results -- just as they had all the weeks and months running up to the event. It is the thing to say about New Hampshire; and no one can doubt that there is a good slice of truth in the view of the Granite State as a place packed with refractory types who love nothing more than a rebellion against established power. It is also true that none of this holds up as a reason for the way the citizens of New Hampshire came out for Sen. John McCain -- a victory, clearly, that had to do with a lot more than quirky voters and their fondness for mavericks.

On Saturday, George W. Bush's mother and his father and his sister and a retinue of Republican luminaries all came to town to help out by appearing at a rally -- a display of both power and family unity, with much kissing and hugging, all of it gratifying, the candidate said in a small speech, because it showed that his family cared so much. The highlight of this event came when President Bush stepped up to say that "this boy" would do everyone proud.

The same evening, the Arts & Entertainment network aired an hour-long biography on Mr. McCain, with its centerpiece the chronicle of his endurance and heroism as a prisoner of war -- not to mention his refusal to accept the Viet Cong's special offer of release because it would violate the military code of honor. The film offered a good deal more about Mr. McCain, his entry into political life, and the rest, but that centerpiece is what everyone would remember.

The voters of New Hampshire didn't have to see that film, of course, to learn these facts. They are known; they are in the air; they are the force roiling just beneath the surface of the roaring acclaim Mr. McCain finds in crowds greeting him on the campaign trail these days -- in the biographies they hold up for him to sign, in the way the people in those crowds want to touch him. Does anyone imagine that it is his advocacy of campaign-finance reform that inspires people to feel this way?

Primary campaigns don't often yield a contrast as dramatic as these two scenes -- the rally with Gov. Bush surrounded by the visiting powers, and the image on the television screen detailing John McCain's history of valor -- and in that contrast lies the reason voters pulled the lever for Mr. McCain in such surprising numbers. It should not have been such a surprise -- not, at least, to anyone paying any attention to the response to Mr. McCain, both in and outside of New Hampshire.

He won the votes of conservatives, moderates and liberals; people against legal abortion, people in favor of abortion rights -- the list is long. This primary campaign proved that the candidate who puts his faith in the wisdom of focus groups and polls may well be undone against an opponent who exudes spontaneity, a man who is frank, sometimes to his disadvantage. The contrast can be deadly -- and nowhere was that contrast more evident than in Mr. Bush's careful refusal during the debates to risk any mention of the Clinton scandals. Somewhere in the course of the New Hampshire campaign, Mr. Bush allowed that "an embarrassment" had taken place but that the American people were now "focused" on other matters.

No one, of course, required the candidates' input on this well-known aspect of the Clinton presidency. What voters did require, perhaps, was some indication that the Republican frontrunner is not so terrorized of offending, not so obedient to the dictates of polls and focus groups as Mr. Bush appears to be when confronted with a subject his camp considers threatening to his image. The image, that is, of a fresh, new, make-it-happen kind of guy -- a forward-looking Republican untainted by involvement in any of those investigations of the president or related dark Washington matters the focus groups say Americans don't want to hear about. It isn't for nothing that those exit polls showed voters swinging lopsidedly to Mr. McCain when asked which candidate was willing to say what he believed, whatever the consequences.

As Mr. Bush's campaign moves on, we may get a clearer answer as to whether he is in fact capable of finding in himself the fight and spirit required to win a presidential contest. This question is particularly relevant against an opponent like Albert Gore, whose ferocious determination to win no one will dispute. It is one thing to watch Mr. Gore debate Bill Bradley -- his equal in confidence, if not in debating skills -- and another to try to imagine Mr. Bush in such a contest with the vice president.

To get a sense of the spirit that drives the Gore campaign, its only necessary to look at what happened over the weekend when Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska -- out stumping on Mr. Bradley's behalf -- tried to make his way to reporters covering one of the vice president's events. In addition to being spattered with mud, the senator -- a Medal of Honor winner who lost part of his leg in Vietnam -- was derided and called "a cripple" by some of Mr. Gore's supporters. Mr. Kerrey told reporters that he is indeed a cripple, and that was "the only honest thing they said all day."

Everyone understands that things happen in the course of a campaign -- offenses by underlings for which the candidate isn't responsible. What made this event interesting was the Gore campaign's official response, first from press secretary Chris Lehane. He asked why anyone thought the Gore campaign should have to apologize to Mr. Kerrey, when Mr. Kerrey had "come to a Gore event to find a crowd."

Even more telling was Mr. Gore's own response, when confronted with the story during a Tuesday night appearance on MSNBC'S "Equal Time." "Oh no," Mr. Gore said. "That's not true. That's just not true. . . . Again, it did not happen." Then he told the host: "Listen, the story tonight is a come-from-behind victory and a wonderful win."

Those acquainted with the vice president's habits of mind -- a fascinating study -- won't be surprised by this outright, unshakable denial of an event to which numerous reporters were witness, not to mention Mr. Kerrey himself. All of which is to say that Mr. Gore has proved himself, over and over, a campaigner who has at his command a fire in the belly and bare-knuckled toughness it would be hard to match. It is hard to imagine him being bested by the candidate the Republican high command appears to have chosen for the job. For that assignment, there would appear to be only one appropriate candidate. The voters of New Hampshire have chosen him.

Commentary 2001