McCain's landslide win leaves GOP establishment in a bind

Analysts suggest the party's elite has lost touch with electorate and needs to regroup.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush wasn't the only loser in the New Hampshire primary this week.

Virtually the entire Republican "establishment" - officials across the country, including most GOP governors, senators, and House members, who endorsed Governor Bush for their party's presidential nomination - also suffered immense embarrassment when Arizona Sen. John McCain beat Bush by 19 points.

Over the past year, in endorsement after endorsement, top Republicans announced they were backing Bush, citing his "electability." That electability was based on his ability to raise a lot of cash - which in turn was based on Bush's famous political family and its fund-raising Rolodex. Being governor of a big state put a sheen of legitimacy on his bid.

What the establishment hadn't counted on in New Hampshire was that voters would look at the core product and find it wanting. And that an alternative - Senator McCain, who wowed New Hampshirites with his maverick, anti-party message - would come in and steal the show.

"The Republicans were so desperate for a winner, they backed someone who was famous for being famous," says Jay Severin, a GOP strategist not affiliated with any presidential campaign.

McCain is actively disliked by the Republican elected elite, mainly because of his crusade to take "special interest money" out of politics. For the most part, he votes with his party, and he has a consistently conservative record. But his poke-'em-in-the-eye style rankles many party regulars.

Now that McCain has shown what he can do when actual voters go to the polls, Bush's backers are in a bind. If they are perceived as trying to undermine McCain (say, by trying to keep him off the ballot in New York), that may incite voters more. But they can't very well say "never mind" to Bush and switch to the candidate who could arguably pose a more formidable threat to the Democratic nominee in November.

In the immediate New Hampshire aftermath, Bush's top supporters tried to put a brave face on their man's big loss. They called New Hampshirites "quirky," adherents of a brand of Republicanism that's more liberal than in the country as a whole. There is some truth to that assertion, analysts say, but still, Bush's defeat was so immense that it has given the party pause.

At this point, all Bush's army of endorsers can do is press ahead, deploying its biggest assets: its own credibility with voters and its ready-made organizations, which can canvass for Bush and turn out the vote.

Still, what GOP elites may be discovering is that the world is changing out from under them.

"Establishments today are not as strong as they were 15 or 20 years ago," says Mark Sanford of South Carolina, co-chair of the McCain campaign in the state that's holding the next important GOP primary, Feb. 19. "They don't have a lock on ideas."

And with the proliferation of media - including the immense power of the Internet, which is proving to be a powerful fund-raising tool for McCain's post-New Hampshire insurgency - elites have less and less ability to dominate public discourse, says Congressman Sanford.

Some Bush supporters have noted that McCain's margin of victory was largely attributable to his popularity with independents, and that he beat Bush among Republicans by a small margin.

But that fact obscures elected Republicans' central challenge: By backing Bush so forcefully, are they out of touch with the electorate as a whole - not just registered Republicans, but also the two-thirds of the electorate that is independent and Democratic, and may well find McCain more appealing than the Democratic nominee?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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