The GOP's phantom menace

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There are any number of moments in this presidential campaign so far that can be seen as absurd. Alan Keyes jumping in a mosh pit in Iowa is a nice start. Steve Forbes portraying himself as friend to the common man isn't bad - in fact anything with Forbes may qualify.

But we may have reached our high-water mark on Tuesday night in Arizona when John McCain and his wife posed holding light sabers up in victory, with huge grins on their faces. Mr. McCain has taken to comparing himself to "Luke Skywalker flying out of the Death Star." Luke, of course, managed that feat twice, both times as the station was preparing to explode. A neat trick and, of course, a nice metaphor for McCain.

But the Arizona senator has gotten a little too excited with this idea lately, speaking with great gusto, almost yelling it out at points and leaving some to wonder whether he A) actually believes this or B) owns a lot of stock in Lucasfilm.

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Now that Michigan's won, he needs to put the symbolism in the background and start articulating a vision beyond campaign-finance reform.

He's no longer a long-shot struggling for recognition, or the one-hit wonder out of New Hampshire. He is a real candidate. He has a message and needs to fill in the blanks with specifics.

The first order of business at Bush headquarters is to get the house in order. There was serious fingerpointing at the Bush camp after McCain's surprising seven-point victory in Michigan.

Gov. John Engler, who had promised to deliver Michigan for Bush, went on TV and committed political seppuku, taking the blame for the loss. Others placed the fault on those sneaky Democrats who actually voted in the GOP primary (the nerve of some people). And still others said Geoffrey Fieger - the erstwhile Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former attorney for physician-assisted-suicide-crusader Jack Kevorkian - was to blame because he urged an anti-Bush vote among Democrats.

It was the kind of talk that magically transports one to the locker room of a seventh-grade basketball team after a bad loss: "The refs beat us." "Jimmy messed up on the foul line." "My shorts were too tight."

The truth is that Mr. Engler is not a bad guy, but he's never been able to "deliver" Michigan - Bill Clinton won the state in '92 and '96. Democrats voted for McCain because they liked him. As for Mr. Fieger's endorsement, his political weight in Michigan is measured in nanograms.

Now the campaign that has seemed to alternate between exciting and over is back on the front burner again. And the "critical, deciding vote" has been pushed back another week - this time to Tuesday when Virginia and Washington will hold closed primaries, where only Republicans can vote.

The odds would seem to favor Bush there. He has done a good job of capturing the GOP in every primary so far, and his road to the nomination looks good unless McCain can suddenly give his cross-party appeal a more Republican flavor.

But beyond just winning the nomination, Bush has to be careful. As the campaign moves on, the temptation for Bush will be to repeat his South Carolina antics and run hard to the right. But this strategy is a loser in the long term.

The real phantom menace for Bush made itself known in Michigan and it is taking shape rather quickly: If you get an electorate that looks more like the nation at large, Bush has trouble. Among independents in the state, Bush lost by more than 2 to 1. One independent voter in suburban Detroit, where there's little interest in who your dad is or where you're from, said W. seemed like a "daddy's boy."

Results and comments like those should start setting off alarms at Bush headquarters and within the GOP. It may be that a Republican can win the nomination by ignoring moderate Democrats and independents, but he can't win the general election in November. Moves like Bush's in South Carolina will split the party and either keep those voters at home or send their votes elsewhere.

Or, to put it another way: Luke Skywalker may not get out of the Death Star alive, but it will still self-destruct.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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