Cover Story

And the winners are ...

Then there were two: After the Super Tuesday voting swamped the Democratic and Republican insurgent candidacies of Bill Bradley and John McCain, the two survivors turned their attention to one another. With eight months before Election Day, Al Gore and George W. Bush began their march to the center, even while sharpening the distinctions between themselves

Issue: "It's Bush vs. Gore," March 18, 2000

On a nervous Monday before Super Tuesday, the last thing candidates wanted to do was turn off their own supporters. But scheduling is notoriously difficult in the land of the interstate parking lot, and the natives were getting restless. With John McCain running about an hour late for a rally in San Diego's touristy Old Town district, aides distributed free guacamole to the crowd of about 300. That seemed to help-as did the occasional pale green margarita. When shuffling rally-goers grew tired of chips, salsa, and warbling mariachis, an enterprising grassroots organizer tried to start a sing-along. But her off-key musical selections-"California, Here I Come" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy"-failed to inspire the crowd. The entertainment hadn't gone much better that morning at a nearby Bush event. When a 6-year-old boy named Thomas whispered in the governor's ear that he'd like to sing a song, the capacity crowd inside the municipal gym smiled encouragingly. But once in front of the microphone, Thomas couldn't overcome his stage fright, and after a few moments he was led off the dais and back to his mother's arms. Mr. Bush may have experienced a moment like that himself, back on the night of the New Hampshire primary. Embarrassed in the full glare of the media spotlight, he risked being pushed from the national stage. But his opponent, as it turned out, had a tin ear every bit as bad as the songleader at his rally in San Diego. His diversion to a nasty attack on the Religious Right-just when his reform message seemed to be catching on-stopped his momentum cold and contributed to a Super Tuesday flameout. Mr. McCain did win in four small New England states-Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont-but the Texas governor routed him everywhere else. Mr. McCain had hoped especially for a win in New York, allowing him to argue that he was the only Republican who could carry the big, important swing states. But he lost the Empire State in almost every conceivable demographic category, except among voters who identified themselves as independents-the same group that fueled his breakthrough in New Hampshire. Exit polls in New York showed just how gravely the senator had miscalculated with his attacks on conservative Christian activists by ripping two unpopular Religious Right figures, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Forty percent of voters said Mr. McCain's views of Christian activists had at least some bearing on their vote-and two-thirds of those went on to vote for Mr. Bush. Catholics, the single largest religious voting bloc in the state, supported Mr. Bush by a 10-point margin, despite Mr. McCain's effort to portray his opponent as anti-Catholic. In the closing days of the campaign, Mr. McCain complained bitterly that his rival's ads were unfair and misleading. In one New York television commercial, for instance, Mr. Bush charged the Arizona senator with opposing breast-cancer research because he had once voted against funding for a cancer research center. Mr. McCain responded that the research lab was part of an omnibus spending bill full of the kind of "garden-variety pork" that he routinely opposed on fiscal conservative grounds. Besides, his own sister suffered from the disease. But once again, it seemed to be the anti-religious attacks by Mr. McCain that stuck in voters' minds. In crucial battleground states such as California, Ohio, Maryland, and Missouri, voters held Mr. McCain more responsible for "unfair attacks" by a wide margin. With his negatives mounting and his momentum disappearing, Mr. McCain was forced to face the cold, hard reality of simple math: Mr. Bush's Super Tuesday wins drove him well over the halfway mark; he picked up about 450 more delegates toward the 1,034 needed to win. March 14 primaries in Texas, Florida, and four other Southern states were certain to add several hundred more delegates to the Bush column. On the Democratic side, the math was even simpler. Despite initial enthusiasm, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley failed to win a single primary or caucus. Even before the polls had closed on Super Tuesday, he was talking about his campaign in the past tense. After huddling with his advisers Wednesday morning, he scheduled a press conference the next day to wave the white flag and give his backing to Vice President Gore. Because the rhetoric in the Democratic race was considerably less harsh, Mr. Gore and Mr. Bradley will have an easier time putting their differences behind them. Republicans, on the other hand, are watching nervously to see what kind of relationship might emerge between Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain. The Texas governor, who bills himself as "a uniter, not a divider," may need all of his unifying skills just to keep Mr. McCain in the party, much less actively engaged on his behalf. Mr. McCain suspended his campaign last week, offering Mr. Bush his "best wishes" but not his endorsement. Mr. Bush will need all the help he can get as he turns his attention to November and Al Gore. Faced with a stiff primary challenge, the Texas governor strayed from his "compassionate conservative" message and spent a month or more in a dogfight with a decorated war hero beloved by the journalists covering him. Mr. Gore, meanwhile, coasted to a surprisingly easy win. Even the few attacks that Mr. Bradley did lob his way were largely ignored by a media corps fascinated with the Bush-McCain mud fight. As a result, Mr. Gore enters the general election relatively unbloodied, while Mr. Bush will need some time to recover from the damage to his image. The vice president wasted no time in going on the attack. Still looking tired from his late-night victories, Mr. Gore went on the Wednesday morning news shows to slam Mr. Bush on topics including gun control, tax cuts, Social Security, and campaign-finance reform. When questioned on his own shady fundraising history, Mr. Gore replied, "I've learned from my mistakes," then pressed the case for statutory reforms more far-reaching than Mr. Bush is willing to make. "He's trying to make people forget what went on in Washington, D.C., for the past eight years," Mr. Bush shot back during his turn on the morning shows. Acknowledging a difficult primary season, he denied any lasting damage to his reputation. "People saw I could get whipped and bounce back," he told reporters. "I feel battle-tested." As Mr. Bush heads into a series of March 14 primaries in friendly Southern territory, he'll be at pains to reconstruct his image as a bridge-builder and innovator. But the nastiness of the primary campaign was likely only a prelude to the all-out brawl that will emerge in the general election. From Super Tuesday to Election Day is exactly eight months. For the first half of that period, Mr. Gore may be laboring under tight financial restrictions. Though both candidates have about the same amount of cash on hand, the vice president accepted federal matching funds for his primary bid, meaning he must abide by spending caps, which he's already bumping up against. Mr. Bush, on the other hand, turned down the matching funds, meaning he's free from federal spending restrictions. Already he is revving up his fundraising machine again, vowing to raise and spend an additional $10 million while Mr. Gore is effectively sidelined. After a hard-fought Republican primary, many national polls have Mr. Bush even with or slightly trailing his Democratic rival. Lots of money can change that equation, of course. Lots of guacamole and chips and mariachi bands might help. And in November the fat lady will sing. By then the stage fright should be gone.

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