Arizona Sen. John McCain's 19-point victory in New Hampshire has to be read as a great leap forward by him toward the GOP presidential nomination. The cognoscenti will await the results of the South Carolina primary on February 19 before they seriously begin talking about a McCain presidency. But the combined results of George W. Bush's disaster in New Hampshire following his weak showing in Iowa, where he got only 41% of the vote against a weak field that did not include McCain, now make it hard to see how Bush can recover quickly. This suggests a long race for the nomination, with Steve Forbes dreaming of picking up the fragments of the Bush/McCain clash. Conservatives now are frantic at the thought of McCain being nominated and are applying all the institutional pressure they can to get Forbes to quit and throw his support to Bush. National Review this week begs Forbes to do so. Larry Kudlow trumpets that George W. Bush is the "supply-side candidate," which is ridiculous. As the candidate of the GOP organization, Bush has given no indication he would do anything in the Oval Office but defend the status quo, which of course is why he was chosen. In McCain, the electorate has a man who promises to shake things up, which is about all that came through in the New Hampshire debates. There were no issues of any moment that divided the two and there do not seem to be any on the horizon.
Personally, I would prefer Bush to McCain if I were forced to make that choice. I see McCain as the candidate of the military-industrial establishment, a man who always seems to choose force before diplomacy, and who enjoys the prospect of combat. His eagerness to bomb Yugoslavia and send in ground troops fixed him firmly in my mind as a man who belongs in the Senate, where there are 99 others to dilute his eagerness for battle. On the Polyconomics website today, I elaborate on my concerns about McCain in an open memo to South Carolina's Rep. Lindsey Graham, a primary McCain supporter. If Bush loses the South Carolina primary on February 19, the blow even might be fatal, with the Republican elites realizing their boy George W would be chewed up by either Gore or Bradley in November. W's inexperience in the big leagues of American politics shone brightly when he told his supporters that "South Carolina is Bush country." The conventional wisdom is that McCain will be hurled back in South Carolina the way Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes were crushed in 1996 by Bob Dole -- then the organization's candidate. South Carolina's open primary, though, is made to order for crossover Democrats and independents to vote for McCain, whose war record and military bent is completely in tune with the high concentration of veterans there.
On the Democratic side, Bill Bradley finds himself with a shot at winning the nomination, but he does not know how to differentiate himself from Vice President Al Gore without losing organization Democrats. The problem is similar to Ronald Reagan's in 1976, when he was challenging the incumbent of his own party. That race went to the wire at the St. Louis convention, with Ford winning by a handful of delegates. This can happen again, although it all was supposed to be over by mid-March in both parties. The damned voters are not following the scripts prepared for them! Think, now, of the prospect of a Gore-McCain-Buchanan race down to the wire in November. People who thought they would never vote for Pat Buchanan might have to think again, especially if he builds his reform coalition more astutely than he did in his major-party campaigns. I am still in almost daily contact with him -- advising him as long as he wishes my counsel -- and can tell you he is doing exactly that.