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

Roger Simon

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Bush's should never have told daddy the truth -- CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Getting clobbered by John McCain in New Hampshire was not the worst thing that ever happened to George W. Bush. The worst thing was telling his parents about it.

"I actually thought I was going to win," he told me. "I did. I didn't know I was going to lose until the exit polls came in. Then it was pretty clear."

He laughed a hard, short laugh and then recalled the moment when he had to pick up the phone and call his father. "We're going to get whipped," the younger Bush told the elder.

Thinking back on it now, George W. said: "I had to assure them I was going to be fine. And I was fine. I didn't like losing, but I knew it was time to regroup and there would be another day."

That other day is almost upon him, and it is called the South Carolina primary. It takes place Feb. 19, and it is a must win for both Bush and McCain.

If McCain beats Bush soundly here, McCain's candidacy may become an irresistible force, a phenomenon that will sweep him to victory in Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 22 and then to a series of victories in the Super Tuesday primaries on March 7.

If Bush wins decisively, however, he could claim that the McCain candidacy is merely a media-driven fad and give renewed confidence to the Republican establishment that backs Bush and to all those people who poured $70 million into his coffers.

While many religious conservatives are backing Bush, the primary is an open one, and that means McCain could take it if he is able to draw sizable numbers of Democrats and independents.

"I have always been underestimated," Bush says. "You can understand why. People say, well, he's Daddy's boy and has never done anything of accomplishment. But that's good. I'd rather be underestimated than overestimated."

As he spoke, Bush lounged on a long couch in the front of his bus as it traveled through a piney swamp in the South Carolina Low Country. His feet were propped across the aisle, he held a can of Diet Coke in his right hand, and when I came into his cabin to interview him, Bush languidly extended a left hand to me for a handshake as he stayed slumped to one side.

This was Bush body language at its worst from the man the Manchester Union-Leader dubbed "Governor Smirk," the man who sometimes gives the impression that he is running for president as a pledge week initiation stunt.

But when I asked him if he wants to be president badly enough to really go after it, Bush straightened up, drained the Coke and began crumpling the can in one hand.

"That's ridiculous!" he said says. "What do you think I'm doing? I'm up at 6:30 every morning, and go to bed at 10:30 at night, and I'm shaking thousands of hands, and I'm speaking from my heart, and I'm putting out policy initiatives that are on the (cutting) edge of reform! I haven't seen any policy initiatives from my opponent! It's an absurd statement."

He stopped for a moment. "But I understand how it works," he said. "They have to say something after I got whipped."

After New Hampshire, the Bush campaign went through a major reconfiguration - Bush even changed the name of his campaign plane from "Great Expectations" to "Retool One," and now he is portraying himself as a reformer. Bush has also adopted the McCain town-meeting format - Bush calls them "one on ones" - where he spends less time on his stump speech and more time answering questions.

This, he believes, will put to rest suspicions that he is not intelligent. "I've retooled the format to show that I know what I'm talking about," he said, "to show that I know how to lead, and to share my passions with the voters. We'll see if it pays off here."

In a political year in which issues have taken second place to personalities, the attack and counter-attack has grown vicious, and Bush tells crowds, "It's important to me to show you I can not only take a punch but win."

Bush has also turned up the volume both literally and figuratively. He often shouts into the microphone, nervously tapping his left foot as he clutches the mike stand.

While McCain is loose and easy on the stump these days - a 19-point victory will do that for you - Bush seems as relaxed as an overwound clock. But he has a right: If he loses his fight for the Republican nomination, the humiliation will be enormous and he may never get a second chance.

Bush is rankled by what has widely been called the McCain Swoon, the feeling on the part of some that the media have gone easy on McCain because of all the access he grants them.

"I don't think there is any plot; I hope there isn't," Bush told me. "But it's an amazing phenomenon, I'll tell you that. It's like the flap over the foreign-leader deal. A guy gets up and quizzes me - it's my fault for trying to answer - but John McCain says something about the 'ambassador to Czechoslovakia.' Well, I know there is no Czechoslovakia (there's a Czech Republic and a Slovakia), but yet it didn't make the nightly national news. I'm not going to gripe about it, but the media question is starting to pop up."

Accusations that liberal Washington media are backing McCain for their own nefarious purposes fill the radio talk-show airwaves here, and it may have an effect on the outcome of the election. Ruth Wilson, 52, of Summerville, S.C., and an office manager in a glass shop, came out to see Bush speak at a county fairgrounds north of Charleston after she had already heard McCain. "I liked what McCain had to say, but the more I hear about the media pushing him, the more I decided to come over to Bush," she said. "McCain is being made a hero by the media and the Democrats who intend to vote in the Republican primary."

After hearing Bush speak and answer questions on everything from abortion to foreign policy, Wilson said: "I think he was a little canned on some responses, but he's trying to get his message out. He is not the phony that McCain is trying to make him out to be. I'll vote for Bush."

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