War shifts outlook for 2000 race

Of presidential aspirants, a buzz about McCain and doubts about Bush.

Overnight, it seems, the Kosovo conflict has altered the early dynamic of the 2000 presidential campaign.

Where Texas Gov. George W. Bush once seemed invincible in his drive for the Republican nomination, some fellow GOPers are wondering in whispers whether he's ready for prime time.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, the former Vietnam POW with credibility and clear views on the use of US force, has suddenly replaced Monica Lewinsky as the ubiquitous name on political talk television.

Pat Buchanan, too, has been a big winner in the free-media sweepstakes, gaining many opportunities to articulate his anti-interventionist view.

And former American Red Cross chief Elizabeth Dole, whose candidacy has sought to capitalize on her sex, is now finding that on Kosovo her gender may be a liability.

But don't look for any dramatic shifts in the polls. Nineteen months before the November 2000 vote, the public at large still hasn't tuned in to the candidates or their positions. Where all of the above really matters is in something called "the conversation."

"We're at the stage where it's all a conversation among party insiders and press people, and the fact is, McCain scored in the conversation and Bush faltered," says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute here.

Of course, the press and the party insiders don't select the nominees, but they play an important early filtering role that could subtly affect how voters perceive candidates in the primaries next February and March. History has shown that "the conversation" can be crucial.

Back in 1991, Bill Clinton got the conversation going when he a gave speech to the Democratic Leadership Council on changes he wanted to see in the Democratic Party. All of a sudden, there was a big buzz.

"Now there's a big buzz about McCain and a lot of questions being raised about [Governor] Bush," says Mr. Schneider.

How the war with Yugoslavia ultimately affects the 2000 race all depends on how the conflict plays out. If it comes to an early conclusion, there may be little impact. But if US involvement grows deeper, if ground troops are introduced and become mired in the conflict, the dynamic of this presidential race will change permanently.

Vice President Al Gore, strongly favored to win the Democratic nomination, would be inextricably tethered to the Clinton administration's policies - and he could sink politically for it.

Governor Bush may find that his version of military experience - he never left US soil as a member of the Texas Air National Guard - and his lack of foreign-policy experience are more of a campaign liability than they should have been. Going into the 2000 election cycle, the political world seemed to operate on the assumption that domestic affairs would rule and that foreign policy would be a footnote. Mr. Clinton, after all, won the presidency twice without ever having donned a military uniform in his life.

Hurry up and lead

But all that has changed. With only a moment's notice, and with no time for white papers or policy seminars, the 2000 candidates have had to come up with well-thought-through positions on America's role in the world as the only remaining superpower. They are, they suddenly realized, auditioning to be commander in chief of US armed forces.

When the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia began last month, Bush was the last to stake out a position, and even then struck a very cautious tone: The US "must have a clear mission," he said.

Senator McCain, in contrast, became an immediate media presence: He backed the bombing, but criticized Clinton for failing to follow through sooner on his threats against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

McCain's Republican bookend, conservative commentator Buchanan, also happily grabbed the spotlight with his arguments that the situation in Yugoslavia didn't concern vital US interests.

"It was sort of like a dress rehearsal for George W., and there were some folks inside the theater early who understood that he didn't know his lines," says a Republican business activist who asked not to be identified. "Outside the theater, nobody cares."

But, the activist continues, if the issue "goes to the next step" - that is, if the US commits ground troops - then the question of foreign policy in the campaign moves to a new level. At that moment, he says, "people start paying attention, and there's a whole new chance to make points."

The 'Clintonian' approach

Bush may be taking some comfort in the experience of the man he hopes to replace. Back in 1992, when candidate Clinton was asked how he would have voted on the question of sending troops to fight Iraq, he famously waffled: "I guess I would have voted with the majority, if it was a close vote - but I agree with the arguments the minority made."

Harking back to that comment, The Wall Street Journal editorialized that Bush's reaction to Kosovo has been "Clintonian." It was meant as a dig, but then, Clinton did manage to win the presidency twice.

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