A retooled Bush halts S.C. slide
He's learned lessons from New Hampshire and energized the state's GOP voters.
SALUDA, S.C. — He's driving around the state in a big customized bus with his name on the side. He's holding town-hall-style meetings with voters. And he's billing himself as a "reformer with results."
Still, unlike John McCain, his main rival for the Republican presidential nomination, George W. Bush hasn't opened himself up to the kind of dawn-to-dusk press access that has become a trademark of Senator McCain's campaign style.
But Governor Bush appears to have learned a lesson or two from his devastating loss in the New Hampshire primary, especially about the need to campaign early and often, and to brush up close to the voters as much as possible. Yesterday, Bush attempted to boost his own reform credentials by proposing changes to the campaign-finance system, a signature McCain issue, just before an important GOP debate.
Three days before the next crucial GOP test - the South Carolina primary on Saturday - he is reaping the results of his retooled campaign. Polls show he has braked his decline here, putting him in a virtual tie with the Arizona senator in most surveys, and in one, the latest Gallup poll, he is up by seven points.
"I do think his campaign has new energy and vibrancy," says David Woodard, a pollster at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C. "Over the last three days of polling, I sense he has a firmer base than when he started here, since New Hampshire. There's a lot more energy among mainline Republicans."
Bush advisers believe that energizing the GOP base here is the key to holding Senator McCain at bay - particularly, the wave of independent and Democratic voters who are expected to turn out in response to McCain's anti-GOP establishment message. Analysts predict turnout on Saturday will be roughly 60 percent Republican, 34 percent independent, and 6 percent Democratic.
The prospect of a repeat of New Hampshire - in which independents and Democrats handed McCain a huge 19-point margin over Bush - has led most top South Carolina Republicans to rally around the Texan.
Bush is also getting help from pro-tobacco forces, who oppose McCain's stance against Big Tobacco, and from the nation's biggest anti-abortion group, which objects to McCain's version of campaign-finance reform.
The pro-tobacco National Smokers Alliance is set to launch a new round of radio ads denouncing McCain for his vote to raise taxes on cigarettes. And the National Right to Life Committee's political-action committee is planning an anti-McCain mailing to South Carolina voters.
In addition, Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, a leading abortion opponent in Congress, has taped a message that will be transmitted to 100,000 South Carolina homes via telephone, touting Bush's anti-abortion record. McCain, who opposes abortion under most circumstances, notes that the National Right to Life Committee has at times given him a 100 percent rating for his voting record on abortion.
Among the GOP establishment, Bush's biggest asset here may be the former governor, Carroll Campbell, who has stumped tirelessly for the Texas governor. But Mr. Campbell, who left office five years ago, doesn't have the clout he had when he helped save GOP candidate Bob Dole's presidential campaign. Bush also doesn't have the support of the state's current statehouse occupant, Gov. Jim Hodges, who is a Democrat.
McCain himself helps push some Republicans further into Bush's camp. The Arizonan's sometimes-irreverent style is not an easy fit in South Carolina, one of the most Christian conservative states in the country. While McCain is a churchgoer, he doesn't speak freely about his religious beliefs, saying they are a private matter. Bush, by contrast, speaks often of the point in his life when he "found Christ" and has made family values a central message in his campaign here.
"It strikes me that McCain is religiously tone deaf," says Jim Guth, an expert on the religious right at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. "He doesn't pick up the language or the concerns."
Earlier this week, McCain complained about Bush's recent visit to Bob Jones University, a large Christian conservative school here in South Carolina that bans interracial dating. But McCain then went to a Bob Jones-affiliated Baptist church, and Professor Guth says it wasn't clear if McCain knew about the church's affiliation.
When Bush lost so badly in New Hampshire, some of his aides argued that the state leans to the liberal side and therefore is not a good gauge of Bush's national appeal. In South Carolina, which tilts conservative, Bush aides say his message resonates.
"His plan to cut taxes is getting a lot of applause here," says Karen Hughes, a Bush strategist, when asked how voters in the South Carolina GOP primary differ from those in New Hampshire.
Tucker Eskew, director of communications for Bush's South Carolina campaign, adds that in his state, "you have to have a strong record on pro-family issues, and Bush does."
The question for Bush has been how to communicate more effectively with voters. TV ads critical of McCain have blanketed the airwaves - Bush can spend unlimited money here, having eschewed federal matching funds for the primaries - and he has taken heat for "going negative." McCain also ran ads critical of Bush, but opted to pull them several days later.
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