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Jewish World Review Feb. 9, 2000 /3 Adar I, 5760

Roger Simon

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When journalists annoint the wrong candidate -- REPORTERS REALLY HATE IT when they spend time kissing up to the wrong people, and now there is a mad scramble to kiss up to John McCain 's staff.

For months, the media has carried articles on the geniuses in the George W. Bush campaign. By my count, there have been almost as many profiles of Bush's inner circle as there have been of Bush himself.

Such articles are known in the news business as "beat sweeteners."

You do a pleasing profile on a staff member and you hope that the staff member will return your phone calls in the future and -- hope springs eternal -- that he might actually tell you things.

So what happened? Bush got creamed in New Hampshire and all of the sudden all these reporters found out they have been kissing under the wrong mistletoe. So now we are beginning to see the first McCain staff stories, explaining how there are geniuses behind his campaign, too.

And maybe there are. But what John McCain mostly has going for him is John McCain. Actually, he has more than that. He has the John McCain story.

Early campaigning is made up of candidates trying to sell a compelling story to the public. But McCain entered the race with his story -- that of a Vietnam hero --- ready-made.

He always says that you need more than a story, and that is true, but McCain 's story is so compelling because it allows Americans to think about Vietnam and not have ambiguous feelings: You can easily consider McCain a hero without worrying about whether you were for the war or against it.

McCain 's wounds heal. So first came the story and next came the delivery system.

While other candidates followed the strategies of past presidential campaigns -- keep tight control of the message and make the media deal with handlers rather than the candidate -- McCain invited reporters on the bus and talked to them nonstop. His staff is often not even in earshot. McCain spends so much more time with reporters than with his own advisers that at one recent stop Rick Davis, the campaign chairman, came up to me and asked: "Did McCain make any news in the back of the bus?"

McCain's tactic of total access was refreshing, different and seemingly authentic.

"When we started out, McCain had Kosovo (he made an early call for decisive U.S. action there), campaign finance reform and 5-and-a-half years in the Hanoi Hilton," Dan Schnur, his communications director, said. "But the open access accelerated interest in McCain. That led to improving poll numbers, which led to increased fund-raising."

And because McCain appeared to be such a maverick, he attracted the support of independents and Democrats, many of whom assume that he is some kind of moderate, when, in fact, his voting record is that of a hard-edged conservative.

"We've done a hell of a job fooling them, haven't we?" McCain said at a recent dinner and laughed. He went on: "I am a proud conservative Republican, but I've had a lot of people who come up to me and say, 'Look, I don't agree with you on a number of issues, but I'm going to be voting for you.' There's a whole lot of them that come up and say that."

Schnur, who shares McCain 's penchant for finding wisdom in movies, likes to talk about "The Man Who Would Be King," in which the natives think Sean Connery is a god -- until his bride bites him and the trickle of blood reveals him to be just a man.

"If people see that trickle of blood, it will be hard for him (Bush) to go on," Schnur told me before the New Hampshire primary. "If there is a split in the first four, March 7 (when there will be 15 primaries) will be decisive, and I have never seen a state better suited to a candidate than California is to McCain ."

So armed with his huge victory in New Hampshire, McCain hurtles around the country, holding town meeting after town meeting, telling his story, fending off counterattacks and waiting for March 7.

He has already made George Bush bleed and pretty soon, McCain figures, he will have his chance to finish him off.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate