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Jewish World Review Feb. 23, 2000/ 17 Adar I, 5760


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The dirt-strewn high road -- IT WAS clear 24 hours before Saturday's South Carolina primary that Gov. George Bush would defeat Sen. John McCain. Unlike in New Hampshire, all the polls indicated a victory for the governor, and after McCain's lackluster performance in a debate last week, it was apparent he'd let the thousands of glowing newspaper articles go to his head. He'd gotten sloshed on his own Kool-Aid and ignored the voters, thinking he was better than them.

And maybe he is.

But if you don't address their concerns, assuage their egos, from region to region, you lose. The McCain forces claimed that if, as in New Hampshire, there was a massive turnout in SC, their candidate would win. What they didn't count on was an energizing of hardcore Republicans flocking to the polls, angered by McCain's biggest mistake yet of his extraordinary campaign: comparing Bush to Bill Clinton.

So when Bush emerged with a huge win-53-42 percent-the dynamics of the Republican campaign were instantly transformed. The burden of proof was on Bush; now it's McCain back as the underdog. Not only did more SC voters think that Bush was the "reformer," but he won in almost every category, even taking some 47 percent of the veterans' vote. And he did better than McCain with young voters. So much for the "I'm With Honest John" college brigade.

A loss would've resulted in a headline like "Bush in Meltdown" or "Boy George on Life Support"; instead it was "Hurricane George." McCain's domino strategy has been jolted, and it's likely his biggest ally, the media, will desert his bus like the rats they are if the "maverick" loses Michigan. There's only one thing a liberal reporter or pundit hates more than a conservative and that's a loser. Slate's Jacob Weisberg, a loyal servant, might stay on till the bitter end.

What came as a jolt was, one, the margin of Bush's win, and, two, McCain's reaction. During the afternoon, after learning that he'd lose decisively, he canceled a midnight rally in Detroit, which had been billed as a kickoff to the brief hands-on battle for the Michigan primary on Tuesday. Last week, the Detroit News showed McCain leading Bush by a comfortable margin; as of Monday, it was a statistical dead heat.

If Bush defeats his rival in Michigan on Feb. 22, then it's midnight for John McCain's Ross Perot/Cinderella dance at the media-sponsored ball. I'm writing 36 hours before a winner is declared and it appears that Bush will best the Arizona Senator by six or seven points. Even if McCain pulls out a squeaker-a New Hampshire-like landslide is unlikely, given the heavily Republican makeup of MI-his campaign is in trouble.

Watching McCain give his "concession" speech not long after the polls closed in South Carolina, it was striking how bitter his remarks were.

In fact, tv pundits and Bush campaign officials were stunned by his harsh language, especially in light of his promise to run a positive campaign. His text was truly Nixonian: I thought the Senator, known for his unattractive temper, was going to pop a couple of blood vessels right there on the stage. With a wicked and demented grin, making hand-waving gestures reminiscent of Nixon's farewell to Washington after his resignation in '74, McCain said he congratulated Bush and wished him a good night's rest, "because he'll need it."

After some boilerplate words to his supporters about continuing the fight, the battle of ideas, McCain then went nutso, taking direct shots at Bush, even mocking him.

He said: "I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land. I want the presidency in the best way, not the worst way... My friends, I say to you I am a uniter, not a divider. I don't just say it,
I live it. I'm a real reformer. I don't just say it, I live it. And I'm a fighter for this country, and I don't just say it, I live it.

"As this campaign moves forward a clear choice will be offered, a choice between my optimistic and welcoming conservatism and the negative message of fear. Between Ronald Reagan's vision of exclusion and the defeatist tactics of exclusion so cherished by those who would shut the doors to our party and surrender America's future to Speaker Gephardt and President Al Gore. A choice between a record of reform and an empty slogan of reform. A choice between experience and pretense."

Reportedly, Laura Bush said to her husband: "What was he talking about?"


There was a self-serving piece in the Times last week by Donald Trump, the vile New York developer who pretended for several months that he was contemplating a presidential run with the Reform Party. He (or his ghostwriter) opens this 1000-word sludge on a familiar note: "Don King, the boxing promoter, has stated that my recent presidential exploratory campaign was one of the greatest promotions of all time." Come again? No one took Trump seriously. The only purpose of his oily publicity effort was to satisfy his insatiable need for attention. And the press bit: rube reporters called New York City's number-two embarrassment (after Al Sharpton) "The Donald" as much as they wanted; his orange bird's-nest hairdo was on the tube every other night; and Chris Matthews even hosted an hourlong interview with the huckster on his Hardball show.

I can't imagine why Trump wants to prove he's a jerk over and over, but I guess it's a vice he indulges in instead of drinking coffee or vodka.

How else to figure the conclusion of the article, in which he insults every single politician in the country-pols, by and large, aren't a sympathetic lot, but Trump makes them look heroic. Try not to puke: "In the days before I decided to end my presidential exploratory effort, I was watching CNN and saw Vice President Gore trudging through the snow in subzero temperatures in New Hampshire-an obvious look of drudgery on his face. My experience was quite different. I had enormous fun thinking about a presidential candidacy and count it as one of my great life experiences. Although I must admit that it still doesn't compare with completing one of the great skyscrapers of Manhattan, I cannot rule out another bid for the presidency in 2004."

Fabulous! Maybe before then, Trump will release a pamphlet of his Top 500 life experiences. My only question is where his first wet dream would rate, or maybe his most satisfying bowel movement. And I'm sure the Times would put news of its publication on its front page. Perhaps by 2003 the newspaper will have a reader-friendly policy, which will cross-reference the subjects of articles with the advertisements their companies have placed in the real estate section.

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