McCain: great character but what can he do

If the 2000 campaign were being held on a back lot in Hollywood, John McCain would almost certainly capture the GOP nomination. It's hard to imagine a more movie-perfect candidate for this race. How about a principled war-hero who is anti-establishment trying to comfort a weary population? Or a senator who is tired of Washington and wants to clean it up? All you need is Harrison Ford and some special effects and you've got a blockbuster.

But despite the sometimes frightening similarities, Washington is not Hollywood. And when Mr. McCain strides to the podium in Nashua, N.H., as he's expected to today and formally announces his candidacy, he's looking at a long difficult road.

On the surface McCain would seem the perfect change of pace for an electorate suffering from Clinton fatigue. If, as the voters say, they are hungry for a man of character, how could they pass on the senator from Arizona? McCain has stood firm in calling for campaign finance reform even as his party's leaders have tried to silence him. And he has been careful not to jump on the Republican let's-blow-the-surplus-on-tax-cuts bandwagon.

Through all this he has also captured the imagination of the press corps, which loves a candidate who speaks frankly, and often, to it.

Still, McCain's candidacy has more than a few hurdles in the way of a happy ending. First, his stands haven't won him a lot of friends in traditional Republican interest groups. The congressional leadership doesn't like him. The National Rifle Association doesn't like him. The Christian Right doesn't like him. And on top of that he faces the same difficulties all Republicans face in going up against the money raised by the First Bank of George W.

Beyond all that, however, is an even bigger issue for McCain. In the next few months he has to transform his campaign from a cult of character to an idea


Up to now, McCain has been running on the idea that Americans want an honest man of principle whom they can trust in the White House. For the last few months, as the dwarfs of the Republican presidential field have chased George W., McCain kept a cautious distance, enhancing his renegade image by not deigning to enter "beauty contests" like the Iowa Straw Poll. And just last week he was on a book tour touting his "family memoir," "Faith of My Fathers." Rather than just focusing on feel-good stories or empty platitudes, all reviews indicate the book gives readers a serious look at McCain's life, mistakes and all.

Message: I don't play games and I tell you the truth.

That's all well and good for a first step. In fact, it's exactly what voters tell pollsters they want to hear out of politicians. But as he formally joins the race for the nomination, McCain is going to have to start giving voters more.

People may say character is critical to them, but when they go to the ballot box their actions are very different from their words. How else did Bill Clinton win the White House twice despite having a track record lined with character potholes?

In reality "character" - the word we've all had pounded into our heads since Hurricane Monica swept through town - is less important than personality and issues to most voters. There is no way voters can know enough about George W. to determine whether he is a man of character. Yet he stands far ahead of the field and while his vault is largely responsible, he has also gained support because he seems like a decent guy who isn't proposing anything radical.

The question of who, if anyone, will seriously challenge George W. is wide open, but whoever it is will have to explain why he or she is a real option. That involves more than character.

McCain has done a good job of telling us who he is. Now comes the hard part - telling us what he wants to do. Today's speech is important for him in that it gives him a chance to lay out some of those ideas. And it's going to have to be more specific than just cleaning up Washington. The 2000 campaign isn't a Hollywood production. As much as we all like a good story line, we have to live with this ending for four years.

*Dante Chinni writes political commentary from Washington.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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