John McCain, after crushing George W. Bush in the New Hampshire Republican primary this week, faces a much tougher test in his next round.
Mr. McCain has become the new icon of political authenticity, but he faces an uphill climb on the road to the Republican nomination, a road that leads next through the primary in South Carolina on Feb. 19.
Mr. Bush has raised $69 million to McCain's $14 million. And the Texas governor has the formidable organizational weight of the GOP establishment at his beck and call.
The Texas governor called McCain's 18-point victory margin in New Hampshire "a bump in the road." But McCain has something Bush doesn't: a burgeoning movement of supporters who are swayed by who he is and what he says, not some notion of "inevitability" or "winnability" that led GOP regulars early on to open their checkbooks but has left some wondering whether their man has got what it takes to defeat the Democrat in November.
The next big Republican test, the Feb. 19 primary in South Carolina, will be tough for McCain. Polls taken there on the eve of the New Hampshire primary show him trailing by 20-plus points. And South Carolina is known for following the GOP establishment and for its strong religious right, which rewarded Bush handsomely in the Iowa caucuses.
Still, analysts are cautious about conceding anything to Bush in this crucial first Southern primary. "This is not your father's South Carolina," says independent pollster John Zogby. "The prototypical Republican primary voter is centrist to conservative, and you don't have the influence of the Christian right that you used to have."
Like the other Carolina to its north (albeit to a lesser degree), South Carolina has urban sprawl, transplants from the North and West, and a growing number of independents.
"On issues I polled there," Mr. Zogby says, "they told me they were more moderate on the environment and on gun control and abortion than California Republican primary voters."
South Carolina Republicans also allow independents to vote in their primary, a practice that could hurt Bush the way it did in New Hampshire. In the Granite State, 41 percent of the voters in the GOP were independents; 6 in 10 went for McCain, while only 2 in 10 went for Bush.
Beyond the "independent" factor, McCain's other New Hampshire totals are also giving the Bush campaign pause. McCain won even among registered Republicans, which Bush considered his bread-and-butter constituency, as well as among men and women. Among religious conservatives, not a large group in New Hampshire, Bush beat McCain, but not overwhelmingly (about 30 percent to 20 percent).
How the second-tier Republican candidates react to the New Hampshire results could also affect the front-runners' performance in South Carolina. All three - publisher Steve Forbes, talk-show host Alan Keyes, and religious conservative activist Gary Bauer - wooed the religious right, and if any drop out, their support would likely benefit Bush more than McCain.
Mr. Bauer, who won only 1 percent in New Hampshire, hinted he'd quit soon. The other two are expected to stay in, at least through South Carolina.
Four years ago, when Pat Buchanan narrowly defeated GOP establishment favorite Bob Dole in the New Hampshire primary, South Carolina's religious right rallied behind the senator as the pragmatic choice for the nomination. Mr. Dole's victory there essentially sealed the nomination for him.
This year, "the religious right is not as well organized, but I think they'll still be organized for Bush," says Jim Guth, a political analyst at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. "There's still a lot of suspicion over McCain, especially on the abortion issue."
But, he notes, even the anti-abortion movement is somewhat divided on McCain; at least one county pro-life leader has joined the McCain camp.
The key for McCain, says Mr. Guth, is not to battle Bush on the abortion issue, where he can't win, but rather to play up the strengths that won him New Hampshire: his biography as a Vietnam POW and his tell-it-like-it-is candor. South Carolina has a large military community - both veteran and active - that McCain can appeal to, as he did successfully in New Hampshire.
McCain's problem on the abortion issue is not that he's any less anti-abortion than Bush, but rather that his version of campaign-finance reform (eliminating unrestricted donations to parties, known as soft money) is anathema to the anti-abortion movement's views on political money.
Overall, Guth puts McCain's chances at winning the GOP nomination at 20 percent, but moving up. Zogby thinks McCain now has a 50-50 shot at being the GOP nominee. Del Ali, another independent pollster, pegs McCain's chances at about 40 percent.
For now, though, South Carolina has become the GOP's battle of Waterloo. McCain doesn't have to defeat Bush, analysts say, he just has to come close. And if McCain can raise a lot of quick campaign cash - which his strategists say is already happening - he can remain competitive beyond South Carolina.
Already, says Guth, "the playing field is level" in South Carolina. McCain has enough money to run lots of TV there. And the free media from his New Hampshire victory - across the nation and in the next primary state - brings a boon money can't buy.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society