Which Bush next?

Follow the bouncing W. He's up. He's down. He's right. He's left. Three days later it's still relatively unclear: Did George W. Bush win South Carolina or did South Carolina win him?

George W. walked into the Palmetto state as a moderate who was hoping to win the center, but he walked out as something more mixed. He spent his time in Carolina ducking the confederate flag issue and praising the Christian Right, but when he landed in Michigan - which is holding its primary today - parts of his speech echoed Clinton's 1992 campaign. As he moves from Dixie to Detroit, the truth is no one is really sure what he is anymore.

There will be a lot of talk in the coming weeks about how South Carolina represented the triumph of negative campaigning or the triumph of money. And the media will undoubtedly be playing the "George W. has found his voice" story for all they can. And, who knows, there may even be some truth in all of this.

But before the Bush comeback story takes root in our political mythology, it's time for a quick reality check. After all, if New Hampshire was tailor-made for an insurgent like John McCain, South Carolina was made for W. - an establishment candidate who's not afraid to walk on two sides of an issue at the same time.

This is a state that went heavily for Bob Dole in the 1996 general election.

And a state where a candidate can talk about being a "uniter, not a divider," go on to speak at a fundamentalist Christian college that prohibits interracial dating, and then still pick up votes.

Now, despite what seemed to be his best efforts to foul things up for himself, W. is again in the driver's seat for the nomination. In Michigan's vote today, the Bush camp will likely get a nice bump in the polls following South Carolina - something McCain was unable to sustain 18 days after New Hampshire.

But what now? W. has already retooled his message once. He went from being a "compassionate conservative" to a "compassionate conservative and a reformer with results."

One can only wonder what his ads will look like at the end of the primary season: "a compassionate conservative and a real reformer who fights to fix perplexing problems that affect all." It may be that the real fear in the Bush camp is that McCain will stick around so long it exhausts the alphabet.

But alliteration, as nice as it is, is not a message.

So far, W. has been tailoring his platitudes for his crowd, and the fact is that the ideas that sell in South Carolina aren't big winners in Michigan.

Analysts like to say that speaking at Bob Jones University - the conservative college that not only doesn't permit interracial dating but also chastises Catholicism - has little to do with race issues because Bob Jones University has a different meaning in South Carolina than it does in the rest of the country.

Maybe. But the rest of the country took note of his visit to the school.

Every four years, as the Republican race for the nomination takes shape, the question is how the party can recapture the Reagan coalition of the 1980s - the mix of conservative Democrats and Republicans that heavily populates Michigan. And every four years, the nominee claims that he has found the key.

W., of course, now claims he has. But the truth is that South Carolina's Bush vote was solidly GOP - almost solely so. The numbers show it's McCain who has real cross-party appeal: A majority of his supporters in South Carolina were self-described moderates or liberals.

The Bush camp's response? Those numbers are inflated because many Democrats are simply out to sabotage W., knowing he has the best chance of beating Al Gore in November.

And somewhere in that weird mix of paranoia and polling is the true significance of the Michigan primary today.

The real story is not who wins and who loses, but whether W. can start to capture the votes of Democrats and independents - the people you need to win a general election.

Michigan will be a critical state come November, and W. needs to find a message that resonates with these voters.

After South Carolina, W.'s chief strategist Karl Rove told reporters that Bush won because the voters there learned what Bush was all about, "People wanted to see if you care about something, are you somebody who is going to fight for it?"

Well, that's great. Now if they could let the rest of us in on what "it" is.

Is it the same thing at Bob Jones University that it is in Detroit?

Bush needs to start explaining - or the compassionate conservative may find that clichd candidates minus messages exasperate the electorate.

Dante Chinni, a Monitor opinion page contributor since August, 1999, has been named a regular political commentator. Mr. Chinni was raised in Warren, Mich. and has a BA in history and journalism from Michigan State University. A former Newsweek reporter-researcher, he is a consultant for the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, in Washington D.C. He has written for such publications as Capital Style magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, New Republic, and the Economist. And he was a contributor to 'Warp Speed,' (Century Foundation Press, 1999) a book analyzing media treatment of the Clinton-Lewinsky story.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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