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Jewish World Review March 6, 2000/ 29 Adar I, 5760

Charles Krauthammer

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McCain off course -- UNLIKE MOST OF MY MEDIA COLLEAGUES, I didn't cringe at Sen. John McCain's bitter, slashing nonconcession concession speech on the night he got whopped in South Carolina. I thought it was great. The man was beaten and he didn't like the way he'd been hit. As Fred Barnes put it to me, "He is the only politician in America who can throw a tantrum with a written speech."

I'm all for tough. But I remain baffled by McCain's all-out attack on the religious right on the eve of the Virginia primary. With that speech, McCain went nuclear. At every level, it doesn't make sense.

It is true that most of the speech was about his "embrace" of "the fine members of the religious conservative community" and his veneration of their values. But only a fool or a novice--McCain is neither--would not know that the one line, the only line, to come out of that speech would be his incendiary attack on Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Who, after all, remembers the rest of the Murphy Brown speech? Or the Sister Souljah speech?

It is hard to believe that McCain would want to write off a quarter of the Republican primary voters. He says he wants the followers, not the leaders. Fine. But then you use a more subtle instrument than a speech likening the leaders to Louis Farrakhan. Maybe McCain decided that he'd lost the religious right anyway and wanted to move the party to the center. He'd win with Democratic and independent ex-Perot supporters. But he already has the independent centrists. They have been pouring out for him at rallies, on campuses and at the polls. That is his base. You win a nomination by expanding it.

Why could McCain not have competed for the social conservatives? It never made sense that they should be pro-Bush. Bush was running hard to the center up until the day he tripped over John McCain in New Hampshire.

Bush is the man who attacked the Republican Congress for "balancing the budget on the backs of the poor"--language plagiarized from Richard Gephardt--and who tried to distance himself from the social conservatives with his notorious "slouching toward Gomorrah" speech. That earned him a stinging rebuke from the dean of social conservatism, Robert Bork. "Mr. Bush's speech," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal (Oct. 11, 1999), "was by no means his first effort to distance himself from the nasty conservatives." Moreover, it shows "that he intends to reach the White House over the dead bodies of conservatives."

And now he is their champion? McCain could easily make the case that his record and instincts are at least as conservative as those of his Johnny-come-lately opponent, and that religious conservatives should not be misled by leaders who say otherwise. Period. Spare the nukes.

He could appeal additionally to social conservatives as the only guy who can put a stop to the fundamentalist liberalism of Clinton-Gore. If you care about, say, partial-birth abortion or gays in the military, you have to win in November. McCain beats Gore in the national polls. Bush loses. The Virginia exit polls showed that 42 percent of those who supported McCain would vote for Gore over Bush. In California polls, the number is 50 percent.

These are not "strategic" voters, hopping the fence on one day in order to mess up the Republicans and then returning to Gore on the next. These are Democrats and independents who like McCain far more than Gore, and just enough to overcome deep policy differences with conservatism. These are people Bush may never get. And without them, he loses.

There is no reason McCain should not be splitting the religious right with Bush. As it is, he's getting crushed. In Virginia, he lost them 8 to 1.

McCain has not gotten back on his game since South Carolina. Until then, he'd been running as a reformer with a biography--both themes reinforcing his status as the integrity candidate of 2000.

Ever since South Carolina, however, he's gotten lost in complaints about process--about negative campaigning, about accusations of bigotry, about the political power of religious leaders. He won Michigan with that approach, but his defeat by 20 points in Washington, a state made to order for him, is an ominous sign.

Bob Jones, a provincial backwater, is a two-day story. McCain turned it into a theme. He should be back where he started out: like Theodore Roosevelt, taking on the great trusts, not petty preachers. Bob Jones? Pat Robertson? Great crusades are about bigger things.

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01/21/00: A Network Sellout . . .
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12/10/99: Born to Run
12/03/99: Keep Bubba home --- and his mouth shut
11/29/99: Not for Moi, Thanks
11/19/99: Where's the 2000 Buzz?
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11/08/99: Federalism's New Friends
10/29/99: The Phony Battle Against 'Isolationism'
10/25/99: Still With the Soul Of a Candidate
10/18/99: Nixon On the Couch
10/11/99: Slouching Toward The Center

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