FEBRUARY 14, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 6
So both John McCain and George W. Bush have some adjustments to make, as the prince and the pauper change clothes. McCain wouldn't allow himself a smile in his New Hampshire hotel suite on primary day, sitting tightly through the afternoon briefing with his aides, looking as if he'd been stapled to the chair. Campaign chairman Rick Davis knew what was on everyone's mind: not that McCain might lose the election but that he might win. "Tomorrow will be different when you wake up," said Davis. "You will be scrutinized like a President."
It was Mark Salter, the writer who is nearly as close to the candidate as any of McCain's children, who delivered the good news that the Arizona Senator might be not just winning but winning huge--men and women, young and old, wild-eyed libertarian independents and bluenosed conservative Republicans.
"This could have implications," McCain deadpanned.
"Yes," responded Salter. "Like you could be President."
Bush was in a hotel room too, a couple of towns away, surrounded by aides and exit polls and excuses. He reassured his tiny inner circle that no heads would roll, but he wanted some answers: "What the hell happened?" He was stunned by the size of his loss--and furious that his team not only had failed to prevent it but had failed even to predict it. As she thought about it the next morning, communications chief Karen Hughes admitted she should have known something was wrong when she heard there were more out-of-state volunteers in the Bush New Hampshire operation than in-state volunteers. "I should have trusted my instincts," she said.
New Hampshire has always been useful less for picking winners--ask almost-Presidents Buchanan, Tsongas and Hart--than for chastening losers, stripping them bare, exposing the phonies, humbling the pundits, rewarding the pirates and generally leaving the impression that the voters might actually have some role to play in deciding who gets to be President. Even so, no one was prepared for what happened to American politics last week.
A man almost no Republican in Washington likes, John McCain, suddenly stood a chance to grab the party's nomination from the well-liked, well-named Governor of Texas. The 18-point New Hampshire crevasse had swallowed up the party that had been sliding along blithely since the failure of the Contract with America, the fall of the House of Gingrich and the nightmare of impeachment. Outside the bubbles of Washington and Austin, the true threat that McCain posed to Bush was abundantly clear. One runs on candor and fumes; the other hides in the motorcade. One takes a punch and looks stronger; the other throws a punch and looks weaker. One seems to delight in crashing the party; the other drapes the Republican establishment around his neck like a mink.
But more basically, McCain has managed to dig into the rich and unsettled lobe of the American psyche that, in the shadow of impeachment and in the arms of prosperity, wants nothing more from politics than for something good to happen. Some have called it a tide, but it's almost an ache, not so much about anything specific as about everything in general. When the voters finally spoke last week, they all but said they want the national conversation to be civil and square, not empty or jaded, and they want a leader who will explain what he wants to do and level with them when he gets it wrong.
This was the campaign Bush set out to run, with that talk of restoring the dignity of the office--and McCain is beating him at his own game. "People want to elect a statue," observes Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, a devout Bush backer. "They want a hero, an unblemished and unvarnished guy in the White House. They don't want to revisit the agony of the past eight years. Bush has to show his character is unvarnished and unblemished." But he's going to have to get past McCain to do it.
"Fine mess you've gotten me into, Weaver," snapped McCain in jest to the 40-year-old political director who first went to McCain in February 1997 to persuade him to run. As word of McCain's rout spread, family members drifted into his suite; children ran between the sofas and chairs, grazing the tables, spilling their Shirley Temples. McCain's daughter Sidney spun youngest son Jimmy as if they were doing the lindy hop. When the networks finally called the race, Cindy's hands flew to her mouth, and her eyes filled; the aides let out a cheer. McCain hugged his wife tightly but did not smile. This was going to take some getting used to.
By the time McCain heard the official results, he had been practicing his acceptance speech off and on for three hours. "Slow, slow, slow," he said to himself as he paced in his suite, as if he were preparing to deliver a eulogy rather than frame the meaning of this moment. This was not a time for whooping or wisecracks; a lot of the country was going to be seeing him for the first time, and he needed to look like a Man Who Could Be President. "The only other speech that will be more important will be his acceptance speech at the convention," said his California coordinator, Ken Khachigian, who was traveling with the campaign through New Hampshire and South Carolina.
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