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Why the McCain insurgency lives

Energized voters, in three crucial primaries, keep upending expectations.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 24, 2000



WASHINGTON

Something extraordinary has happened on the way to George W. Bush's march to the Republican presidential nomination.

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An epic political battle has erupted, an explosion of public sentiment that is reverberating beyond Republican Party halls into the heart of America's political system.

By winning the Republican primary in Michigan - again jerking momentum from Governor Bush, the favorite of the GOP establishment - John McCain has shown that his reformist insurgency is for real.

By no means, however, does it prove the Arizona senator is now poised to win his party's nomination. To the contrary, the challenge ahead may yet be insurmountable (see story below).

Still, even in states he has lost, including South Carolina last Saturday, McCain has achieved something akin to what independent Ross Perot did in 1992: a burst of interest in politics by a disaffected public that has, with the exception of 1992, voted in steadily declining numbers for decades.

So far, in the three most important early-primary states where Bush and McCain have competed head-to-head - New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Michigan - twice as many voters have turned out than did in those primaries four years ago.

The question is whether the Republican Party will ultimately incorporate this vast, available reservoir of public demand for reform, and perhaps build a new governing coalition, or stick to its current don't-rock-the-boat formula.

McCain supporters are now urging him to appeal to his own party's voters. In his victory speech Tuesday night, McCain signaled that he understands the task ahead. "We are reformers, Republican reformers who can make our party bigger and change politics in this country for generations," he said. "Don't fear this campaign, my fellow Republicans. Join it."

The concern for Republican regulars is that McCain voters come with a large price tag: a demand for changes in the campaign-finance system intended to reduce the influence - read, money - of "special interests" in American politics.

And as both major parties know well, money is the mother's milk of politics.

Observers see parallels between the insurgencies of McCain in 2000, Mr. Perot in '92, and more recently, Jesse Ventura, the third-party candidate who won the Minnesota governorship in 1998 using the same tell-it-like-it-is, outsider message.

But in 2000, the McCain phenomenon is fueled by a new strain of voter disgust, says Jack Pitney, a political analyst at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

"In '92, Perot was tapping into economic dissatisfaction, the notion that there was a giant sucking sound out there siphoning US jobs, and that corruption in the political system was responsible," says Mr. Pitney.

Now the giant sucking sound is gone, and the economy is strong. People can afford to ask the philosophical questions about what they perceive as corruption in the political system."People are asking, 'Why am I still unhappy?' " says Pitney. "The ship of state is doing fine, but it needs to be hosed off."

Other famous outsiders have seized the public's imagination and taken their campaigns straight into the White House. Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer from Georgia, did that in 1976, in a race that shares some similarities to this year's contest. Like McCain, Mr. Carter promised honesty and integrity after years of rule that had been marred by dishonesty and public disgrace. President Richard Nixon would have been impeached had he not resigned. President Clinton was impeached.

Still, Carter's brand of "outsiderness" ranks a few notches below McCain's movement in intensity. Typically, the truly insurgent candidates in modern American politics have failed to win the presidency.

Historically, "insurgencies tend to bring issues to the fore and shake up the establishment, but then the establishment co-opts the insurgents" - who usually end up losing the nomination, says Michael Birkner, a history professor at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.

Two who did win the nomination - Wendell Wilkie in 1940 and George McGovern in 1972 - ended up losing in the general election.

But in some ways, today is a new political era. Party ties aren't as strong as they used to be. The proliferation of new media, particularly the Internet, has made the process more democratic and muted the control of the major-domos of the parties.

Even in this compressed primary schedule, the insurgent McCain has been able to raise millions of dollars via the Internet. Indeed, in one of the strangest twists of this campaign, the Arizonan now has almost as much cash on hand as Bush does.

Except for Bush's still-overwhelming support by elected GOP officials, who bring organizational support with them, the playing field is less uneven at this stage than McCain probably would ever have dreamed.

*Staff writer Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society