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Jewish World Review Feb. 18, 2000 /12 Adar I, 5760

Roger Simon

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Drunk on politics: McCain's bar buddies -- COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A bar is not usually a good place to watch a presidential debate.

You have one drink, and then a second, and maybe a third, and pretty soon the candidates start making sense to you. This should be considered a warning sign.

But John McCain decided to have a big debate-watching party in a downtown bar, and I went to see what kind of crowd it would draw.

As it turned out, it was like the audiences at McCain rallies: a mix of young and old, pretty well-dressed and almost entirely white.

I sat down at the bar and started watching the debate on a row of TV screens set into the wall. Almost immediately, the guy sitting next to me said, "You old enough to remember Kennedy?"

I admitted that I was, although I was a kid when he was killed.

"He was more than a politician," the guy said. "He had character. Real character."

I guess so, I said. We shook hands and exchanged names.

He said his name was Gary Cadle, he was 52, had been in the Navy, in the Seabees, for 28 years, had served two tours of duty in Vietnam and now had a travel agency with his wife in Columbia.

He was, like many people to be found at McCain rallies, a Democrat.

"I'd never vote for a Republican," Cadle said.

McCain is a Republican, I pointed out.

Cadle shrugged. "He's different," he said.

If John McCain has any hope of defeating George W. Bush it is by "expanding the universe," which means he must draw independents and Democrats into the Republican primaries.

This is not possible in many states, but it was possible in New Hampshire, where McCain slaughtered Bush by 19 percentage points, and it is possible in South Carolina, which votes tomorrow.

Bush has the support of the Republican leadership in the state and that of many religious conservatives. McCain is supported by many veterans - South Carolina has more veterans per capita than any state in the union - and by some independents and Democrats.

Who will win will depend on how many people vote. If the numbers are small with only Republicans going to the polls, Bush will almost certainly win. If the numbers are large, with all sorts of voters going to the polls, McCain will probably win.

But why should independents and Democrats vote for a man like McCain, a man with a very conservative voting record?

"Character," Cadle said. "And McCain just seems more ... adult. Presidential. And he is the only guy willing to reform the system. He is the only guy, I think, who is willing to put the country ahead of his party."

Bush is telling voters that Democrats like Cadle are going to vote for McCain in the primary only to give Al Gore, should he win the Democratic nomination, an easier target in the fall. But Cadle says that is not true.

"I'm voting for McCain this Saturday, and I'm voting for McCain in the fall," he said. Cadle pointed up at the TV screen where the candidates were still debating. "Everybody is a patriot now," he said. "But when the Vietnam War was going on, McCain volunteered. He didn't dodge the draft. (Bush was a pilot in the in the Air National Guard in Texas.) He was a patriot back then, and he is a patriot now."

About an hour after the debate ended, McCain came to the bar where about a hundred supporters were still on hand to greet him.

"If we win here, nobody is going to stop us," McCain said. "The same way that Ronald Reagan governed with Reagan Democrats, that's what we are reconstituting here. This used to be a campaign. Now it is a crusade."

Cadle stood in the crowd and applauded.

"I've never volunteered to work before in a political campaign," he said. "But I'm volunteering to work in this one. This campaign is different. This campaign is about character."

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