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Jewish World Review Feb. 14, 2000 / 8 Adar I, 5760

Chris Matthews

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McCainia and the frisky independents -- JOHN MCCAIN now leads George W. Bush in South Carolina by 5 points. A week ago, he was behind by 20 points. A month ago, he was 45 points behind.

At this rate of acceleration, the gutsy Vietnam vet-turned-U.S. senator might well enter his next big test California's March 7 primary with a South Carolina victory on Feb. 19 more spectacular than his triumph Tuesday in New Hampshire.

The sparkplug of this political McCainia has been the independent voter. The gung-ho enthusiasm of these long-dormant citizens, including lively bands of poster-waving college students, promises to be the big American story of the millennial year. A democracy deadened by foreign money scandals and what McCain calls "truth-twisting politics" is suddenly showing wondrous signs of life.

This much we know already: Voters unaffiliated with either the Democratic or Republican party gave McCain his huge 18-point victory in New Hampshire on Feb. 1. John Zogby, the same pollster who called the New Hampshire race right, now reports the surge of independent support for McCain in South Carolina. Once again, it is being led by a newly aroused independent electorate.

The same 2000 phenomenon that has cooled the steam of the once-invincible George W. Bush now stalks the old-style Democratic campaign of Al Gore.

Bill Bradley finished strong in New Hampshire, just 4 points behind the vice president, by attacking Gore on both his inability to speak straight on his changed abortion message and his inability to escape responsibility for the shady Clinton-Gore fundraising of the last campaign. Bradley was in San Francisco Thursday with the same provocative message, offering "a new politics for a new century."

California's open primary ballot presents the twin insurgencies, McCain's and Bradley's, with both an obstacle and an opportunity.

The obstacle for both the Republican and Democratic upstarts is that only voters registered to their separate parties will have their preferences counted in actual delegate selection.

The opportunity for both men is that California's new blanket ballot lets every voter who shows up at the polls March 7 vote for anyone he or she wants. A Californian registered as independent will be able to choose either of the two mavericks. A Democrat will be able to choose McCain, a Republican Bradley. A past Perot voter could go for either of these reform candidacies.

Since everyone will be using the same ballot, long-time party loyalists will be able to jump party lines in complete anonymity. You will be able to cast a frisky, even revolutionary vote without your spouse, partner, neighbor or poll-watcher knowing.

This wild new voter freedom presents the possibility that McCain could win the most California votes on March 7 but lose the winner-takes-all contest among registered Republicans.

"If the steamroller heads West to California," said Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll, "you can imagine a scenario where McCain finishes first in the open primary but he doesn't win the Republican primary."

Or he could win it all.

Or both he and Bradley could win it all!

As in New Hampshire, it may be hard to spot the McCain blitz or the quieter Bradley attack coming until the votes are actually counted. Gale Kaufman, senior advisor to the Bradley campaign in California, says many pro-Bradley voters "don't even get polled because they're not high-propensity voters. They are people who have never been involved in politics for awhile and are coming back because of Bradley."

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, who backs Bradley, speaks with a hopeful sentiment that resonates with McCain backers as well.

"He has a different song inside him," she said in an interview last week.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with leap-frogging ahead of your party. There are times when the parties lead and a time when they follow."

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


02/07/00: A prime-time primary for California
02/02/00: Clinton's final campaign: Take the blame
01/31/00: Which GOPer is willing to pay for his positions?
01/27/00: John McCain's gay radar
01/25/00: This time, candidates get 'authenticity' check
01/18/00: AIDS dooms 1 in 4 in tiny Swaziland
01/13/00: Complacency might be the campaign key
01/10/00: A choice, not an echo
01/06/00: The role of a lifetime
01/03/00: Dangers in Gore's dirty war
12/30/99: Churchill's fighting words saved the century
12/28/99: Candidate Gore's separation anxiety
12/17/99: Catch 22: Leading candidates don't lead
12/17/99: New Democratic leader on the horizon
12/15/99: Is Hillary clueless?
12/08/99: Taking Buchananism to the streets
12/03/99: Why are we so obsessed with 'spin'?
12/01/99: Donald Trump, 'Sinatra of Steel'
11/29/99: Why AlGore will be our next president
11/23/99: After the fall
11/17/99: Our conveniently forgetful president
11/15/99: Next president: Male, WASP, self-selected
11/10/99: Backroom Bill
11/08/99: Please don't feed the 'pander bears'
11/03/99: Battle of the Bubba clones
11/01/99: Pat Buchanan, kamikaze candidate
10/27/99: The year of the woman... voter
10/25/99: The Curse of the Bubba
10/21/99: GOP gives Clinton his finest hour
10/18/99: Clinton's last hurrah
10/13/99: Rough seas for Capt. Ventura
10/11/99: Gore targets Bradley's strength
10/06/99: Bradley's got the right Rx
10/04/99: Buchanan, Churchill and Hitler
09/30/99: Who'll spin political gold in Golden State Gore or Bradley?
09/27/99: Here's a millennial checklist for candidates
09/22/99: The biography battle
09/20/99: Buchanan's new book is a must-read
09/15/99: Don't rule out Beatty
09/13/99: The man with the sun on his face
09/08/99: W. vs. Jr. on dope and the draft
The FALN: Hillary's Willie Horton
08/26/99: Bill's guilt fuels Hill's race
08/25/99: The seemingly inexhaustible strength of America's free enterprise
08/23/99: GOP candidates are weak also-rans
08/16/99: Bubba on Bubba
08/11/99: Hillary's agonizing attempts to understand
08/09/99: With warm regards, Richard Nixon
08/04/99: Weicker: real third party is on the Left
08/02/99: Dubyah's last hangover
07/27/99: Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh; capitalism is gonna win

© 2000, NEA