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Jewish World Review Feb. 16, 2000/ 10 Adar I, 5760


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No bets on this one -- IF THE SOUTH CAROLINA primary were held today, Feb. 14, I believe George W. Bush, buoyed by the backlash of John McCain's negative advertising, would win by several points, a prediction in line with almost every internal and external poll. But next Saturday? Who knows? This election is so out of control that probably a dozen events during the week will determine the outcome. The whiff of Jesse Ventura-like political theater is confounding everyone.

Tuesday night's debate, moderated by CNN's Larry King, will turn the campaign over once again; the perceived victor, who will benefit from at least a two-day news cycle, will probably prevail on Saturday. On Feb. 14, New York Times columnist William Safire, who despises the Bush family, wrote that McCain has the better chance to defeat Gore in the fall. I think his animus toward former President Bush and his son has clouded his thinking: he doesn't even consider that McCain hasn't been raked over by the investigative reporters who will hop off the Straight Talk Express and delve into the well of McCain dirt if he's nominated.

Safire does grant Bush this much: "The paradox is that Bush has been becoming a better candidate even as his campaign has been getting worse. It's a pleasure to see him grow before our eyes: no more cocky smirks, no fear of being blindsided, no dismaying hesitancy on foreign-policy answers. He needed not just preparation but the shock of personal adversity."

The droves of reporters in South Carolina certainly don't agree on anything. In Sunday's papers, The New York Times' Richard Berke-surprise-put a dire spin on Bush's chances, in a piece headlined "Bush Treating South Carolina as a Must-Win." He wrote: "Gov. George W. Bush's campaign has scrapped trips to California and Arizona, bought the advertising time once held by Steve Forbes and started contacting 135,000 independents and Democrats in an all-out bid to stop Senator John McCain from winning the South Carolina primary a week from today. With Mr. McCain riding a wave of national attention after his 19-point victory in New Hampshire, the Bush camp feels that a loss here for Mr. Bush would put his prospects for winning the Republican presidential nomination in jeopardy."

Berke is so behind the curve that his article could've been written a week earlier. In fact, it probably was.

The Washington Post's Dan Balz, in contrast, wrote about the increasing intensity of the primary and said that although the contest was too close to call, "[T]here was a greater sense of confidence among Bush's advisers about the direction of the race." And unlike Berke, who's impersonating Sidney Blumenthal this year for Al Gore and skewing his coverage in favor of McCain, Balz made an observation that would never pass muster in the Times. He wrote: "McCain, once the happy warrior chatting endlessly in the back of his campaign bus, clawed at Bush as a politician who 'twists the truth' like President Clinton and whose tax plan puts 'not one new penny' into saving Social Security. Then on Friday, like a drunk awakening from a bender, McCain called a halt to his negative advertising."

Also in Sunday's Post was a piece called "Bush-McCain Battle Intensifies in S.C.," which focused on the nastiness of the race-New Hampshire wasn't even mentioned until the last paragraph of the story-and gave the impression of a downbeat McCain. Post reporters Dana Milbank and Terry M. Neal wrote: "McCain voiced hopes that the alleged Bush tactics would backfire. 'It's amazing, the number of people' who have told him they're switching to him because of the attacks, he said. But McCain told reporters he could not compete with Bush's TV campaign, which he said 'may be the largest buy in the history of South Carolina.' McCain said he was being outspent 'seven, eight, ten to one.'"

Back to Berke, who wrote: "When Mr. Forbes dropped out on Wednesday, Bush aides grabbed the remaining $45,000 in air time, expanding television and radio expense here to $3 million, nearly a half-million more than Mr. McCain's."

Somebody down there could use a remedial lesson in arithmetic and I suspect it's John McCain.

Then there is just plain stupid reporting. On Friday, The Boston Globe's Michael Kranish began his dispatch with a folksy anecdote. "To Lanny Wiles, the scenario seems eerily familiar. A well-financed Texan, backed by the political establishment, expects to ride a South Carolina win to the White House. But here the Texan faces a self-proclaimed outsider, who has few congressional endorsements but a magnetic style that wins over independents and Democrats."

Kranish is referring to the 1980 South Carolina primary battle in which Ronald Reagan whipped the Texan John Connally by 24 points. But the analogy is so wrong it seems impossible it was even printed. First of all, Reagan was hardly an "outsider": he'd run for president in '76, dogging President Gerald Ford all the way to the GOP convention. In '80, Reagan, who won the New Hampshire primary, was seasoned and well-known, unlike McCain before a few months ago. Additionally, comparing Connally to Bush is ludicrous: the former Texas governor did famously spend a ton of money in a campaign that netted him one delegate, but unlike Bush, he placed fourth in the Iowa caucuses, with 9 percent of the vote. Bush won the contest this year. In New Hampshire, Connally finished sixth, with less than 2 percent of the total. Bush was swamped by McCain, but he did come in second.

Connally was creamed in South Carolina and then dropped out of the primaries, saying, "I don't ever intend to be a candidate again."

Even farther down the journalistic ladder is John
, the former New York Post editorial page editor who now writes a twice-weekly column for the paper. After the Iowa results, Podhoretz claimed the primary season was over, that McCain's gamble to ignore the state had failed and Bush would now coast to the nomination. That was a bit over the top; after all, McCain was booming in New Hampshire, whose voters went to the polls only a week later. But Podhoretz, jumping the gun, wrote that McCain was "basically toast."

Last Friday, ignoring Bush's successful stanch of his New Hampshire bloodbath, the Pod proclaimed: "John McCain will be the Republican nominee for president. Barring some really catastrophic error on his part, he is on an inexorable path to coronation at the GOP Convention in Philadelphia on Aug. 2... Bye-bye, Dubya." I can't fathom how Podhoretz can declare two victors in the space of three weeks, ignoring the closeness of this race, not to mention the spate of primaries to come on March 7, but the Pod is one goofy dude.

As one respected pundit told me on Friday, "I agree Podhoretz probably is a good reverse indicator."

Another political journalist said: "I had read His Pod-ness this morning and now feel that I finally understand what's going on. Of course, I also felt that way three weeks ago, when I finished reading his musings on Iowa. The fact that the two columns directly contradict one another does not bother me, because I know that His Pod-ness works in mysterious ways. And I believe."

Beltway logic says that McCain wins if there's a big turnout of crossover independents and Democrats, a repeat of what happened in New Hampshire. At this point, the Republican vote is largely conceded to Bush. What this analysis ignores, however, is the percentage of South Carolina's Democrats who are black. After McCain's waffling on the Confederate flag issue, it's unlikely they'll vote for him or Bush.

That puts a lot of money on the state's independents, and unlike New Hampshire, which was relatively civilized, it's anybody's guess how the ugliness of this race will affect voter turnout.

JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press ( Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2000, Russ Smith