The bump and the long haul

Now that all the votes in New Hampshire have been tallied, I think there's one question we're all asking: When did Texas's pothole problem get so bad?

"A bump in the road." That's how George W. described his 18-point drubbing Tuesday night at the hands of John McCain. Really? That must be some highway system down there. Note to self: When visiting Texas travel by train.

Privately, of course, Mr. Bush's aides admitted they were a bit stunned. They could accept losing a close race, but this was a thrashing.

And now, despite all the talk about bumps and roads and long marches to the White House, there can be little question that the real conversation in the W. camp is about what happened. Did the message or the man lose New Hampshire?

The thing is, it may have been both, and while George W. can relax by taking deep breaths and looking at his bank statements, he may now have an inkling of the road ahead.

It's true that a great deal of Mr. McCain's pull is his personality.

In his speeches and town-hall discussions he has tapped into the mood of America - mixing the post-modern raised eyebrow that says, "I know this is a game," with a sincerity that says, "It is still possible to fix what's wrong."

It's funny, but at 60-something McCain may be our first true Generation X candidate - if that term means anything anymore. Here's a man who (jokingly) says his favorite band is Nine Inch Nails and who openly mocks the process he is taking part in - in one interview he called Leonardo DiCaprio an "androgynous wimp" and then quickly added, "There goes the 13-year-old vote."

No one else can do what McCain does. Bill Bradley, whose candidacy has found new life, has tried something similar, but filtered through his more staid personality it comes out sounding dour. And Al Gore is a throwback; whatever he does bears the stamp of a man who is dying to be president - not that this is necessarily such a bad thing.

As for Bush, it's been apparent since the beginning of this campaign that his model for campaigning is Bill Clinton. Repeat the same phrase over and over, adopt a third-way platform, and win voters over with charm. This too is not an awful approach to campaigning, but it misses a key element of Clinton's appeal - the way he can empathize with anyone, with frightening ease.

But when all is said and done, it may be McCain's positions, more than the man, who won in New Hampshire.

As McCain campaigned in New Hampshire, here in Washington we began to question whether he was a Republican at all. He took contrarian positions, criticizing Bush for giving the wealthy a big tax cut, calling for increased spending in social programs and the shoring-up of Social Security. And exit polls in New Hampshire showed that those ideas were popular with voters.

This is bad news at W. headquarters. They will argue that New Hampshire is quirky and that it loves mavericks, and they'll be right.

But it is also true that New Hampshire was the first state to get a close-up look at the message and the man behind the money.

Even if Bush has the resources and organization to bounce back from this "bump in the road" in the short-term, come November the nation will get a close-up similar to the one New Hampshire just received. And if nothing has changed by then, George W. may be in for a bumpy ride.

*Dante Chinni writes on politics from Washington.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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