With just over a month to go before the first presidential nominating contests, the unthinkable is becoming thinkable: It's conceivable that Texas Gov. George W. Bush may not win the Republican nomination.
Analysts of various stripes - independent, Democratic, and Republican - still make Governor Bush the favorite, based on his huge campaign war chest, the overwhelming support of the Republican establishment, and his continued strong showing in national polls. But the insurgent campaign of Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, as well as some miscalculations by Bush, has put Senator McCain in good position to win the crucial New Hampshire primary on Feb. 1, where he currently leads in polls.
Independent pollster John Zogby goes one step further: "I think we have the earmarks of a possible McCain landslide in New Hampshire."
And overall, he told a recent Monitor breakfast, "I'm beginning to think here we may be looking at a possible scenario - though I'm not ready to bet the farm on this - where Bush may not be the nominee of the party."
Among several analysts, the Bush defeat scenario begins in Iowa, which kicks off the nominating season with precinct caucuses on Jan. 24. McCain has chosen not to campaign or organize in Iowa, but his New Hampshire surge is getting lots of coverage there, and he is gaining in Iowa polls. If he finishes in the top three in Iowa and Bush performs below expectations, that gives him extra momentum heading into New Hampshire.
Bush supporters acknowledge that he underestimated the need to campaign early and often in New Hampshire. He skipped the early debates, and hasn't impressed in the more recent forums. Granite State Republicans felt taken for granted and took umbrage, many opting for the upstart, McCain, who has focused intensively on New Hampshire and whose straight-talking style appeals to Yankee contrarians.
Bush striving for depth
Over time, Bush's biggest asset - his air of inevitability - has begun to fade, and now he is scrambling to come across as having the intelligence and gravitas to be president.
"Can McCain do it? Certainly he can," says Del Ali, another independent pollster. "Would I put my money on [it]?... No, I wouldn't.... What you're seeing now in New Hampshire is voters clearly are taking a second look." However, he says, if McCain wins New Hampshire by a landslide, then the next primary in South Carolina becomes Bush's "Waterloo."
The Bush campaign is now arguing that even if their man stumbles in New Hampshire, Bush's huge financial advantage over McCain will allow the governor to dominate in subsequent contests, especially the big-delegate states of California and New York.
The counter argument is that if McCain does well in the first few primaries, the barrage of free media he'll get in those states will make up for his inability to buy as much publicity as Bush can.
A recent Gallup poll also points up a troubling sign for Bush: Nationally, the poll puts Bush over McCain 64 percent to 18 percent. But when respondents were asked, what if Bush were to lose the first primaries, the numbers shifted to 37 percent for Bush, 34 percent for McCain.
Mr. Zogby says this result confirms his polling, which suggests that "the major support for Bush is based on the fact that 'W' stands for winner." Still, Bush supporters can take heart that losing the New Hampshire primary doesn't equal political death: After all, four years ago, Bob Dole lost to Pat Buchanan in New Hampshire, but went on to win the nomination.
On the negative side for Bush, analysts also point out that even if the governor survives the McCain challenge, it may force him to appeal harder to Republican primary voters, which could hurt him in the general election.
Bradley's shrinking lead
On the Democratic side, the surge in New Hampshire by former Sen. Bill Bradley appears to be subsiding. Polls there show Mr. Bradley still beating Vice President Al Gore by a handful of percentage points, but the margin is shrinking.
The irony is that, even as Mr. Gore perhaps looks safer to win his party's nomination than does Bush, polls matching the two head to head on a variety of qualities still tend to favor Bush.
Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who is not working for the Gore campaign, reports that in his latest poll, Bush beats Gore in the categories of "values, high trust, and personal standards."
On leadership, which Mr. Hart says will be an extremely important factor in the 2000 election, "the difference between Bush and Gore at this stage is dramatic," with 53 percent of respondents giving Bush high marks and only 37 percent giving Gore high marks.
But what Hart found most disturbing in his polls was the vice president's favorability rating: Gore is at 38 percent favorable, 35 percent unfavorable.
"I can tell you that a candidate with a 38 to 35 favorable-unfavorable is not going to be elected president," Hart says. "Even Bill Clinton in his worst times never got down to 38 to 35."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society