This year, apathy is out and politics is in ...

Voter interest surges, thanks to a high-stakes presidential race and a McCain insurgency.

It was a drizzly morning in Darlington, S.C., but for 1st Lt. Barnett Slatton it seemed the brightest of days.

He'd driven two hours from Fort Bragg, Ga., to see his political hero, Sen. John McCain. As the presidential candidate swept into a towering white tent - to strains of "Johnny B. Goode" - the lieutenant bounced off his seat, waving Mr. McCain's autobiography. "He's the first candidate who's inspired me to give money," says the young officer. "I've given almost all of my $1,000" - the legal limit.

From the "snow belt" to the Sun Belt, a spirit of energy and optimism has invaded American politics. Partly it's the McCain insurgency, but other reasons also factor in - an electorate bent on reviving the status of character, a recognition that the next president will shape the US Supreme Court, and a general enthusiasm about this crop of candidates.

The buzz may not last until November, but for now, everyone from newcomers like Lieutenant Slatton to jaded veteran reporters says this campaign is the most exciting in decades - something akin to a rebirth of political engagement in America.

In one Gallup poll, 75 percent of Americans said there's a candidate running who would make a good president - up from 40 percent in 1992.

Voter turnout is spiking, too. It hit a record in New Hampshire's primary and is expected to be big among Republicans in Saturday's South Carolina contest.

"This has the prospect of being the most fun and interesting and important election of any I can remember," says Norman Ornstein, a longtime politics watcher and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Because so much is at stake, the campaign is likely to continue to be electric. That's good news for all those who have been wringing their hands over the state of American democracy - citing the sad statistic from the 1996 election, when voter participation slipped below 50 percent for the first time since 1924.

The McCain factor

Much of the enthusiasm and passion in the race surrounds McCain. Americans love an underdog - especially one who has a shot at winning.

"It's the David and Goliath story," says longtime New York Daily News columnist Lars-Erik Nelson. "Only this David is really intent on reform and cleaning up the system."

And the fact that Texas Gov. George W. Bush is the son of a former president is "a little too monarchical for me," says Mr. Nelson. "I thought we got rid of that with the American Revolution."

It adds up to a potentially epic story the press loves to tell. Besides, he says, "reporters always fall for the guy with the sense of humor."

Then there's McCain's approach to the media - constant access. For reporters accustomed to barking questions at fleeing candidates, McCain's style is unusual, even refreshing. (Sometimes reporters on the "Straight-talk Express" campaign bus actually run out of questions.) But it's also beguiling: Criticism of the media is growing for being too close to - and too enamored of - the Arizona senator.

Governor Bush found some footing in South Carolina by attacking McCain. And now that polls show the two GOP front-runners neck-and-neck in the state, McCain has lost some of his underdog status.

Symbols of change

But for some, McCain and fellow insurgent, former Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley, are more than new personalities on the political scene. They're symbols of change in America's political foundation.

"We've spent 20 years on a steady decline of public morals in office," says Michael Birkner, a history professor at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. President Clinton is the ultimate example, he says.

But he adds, "I'm optimistic" about the new voter enthusiasm and the interest in candidates' characters, "because it means we can reinvent our idealism about the political system." And, he notes, "we have the luxury of doing that because the economy's in good shape."

He likens this campaign to 1960. Now, as then, "the country is fundamentally in good shape but isn't sure what's coming next." John Kennedy offered an idealistic answer. So, now, does McCain, he says.

But lest the rapture over McCain be overblown, David Broder - dean of American political reporters - adds a cautionary note. He calls this year's campaign a "terrific story," but adds that "it's not unusual for there to be this much uncertainty at this point in the race." In other words, in the end, this year may not be so different from other years.

But Mr. Ornstein observes that if McCain's momentum continues, "and the Republican establishment goes nuclear on him, but he wins anyway, that will change the whole structure of the party."

With talk of large numbers of independents and even Democrats voting for McCain, "we could see sea changes in the structure of American politics," he says. "We're in uncharted territory here." The caveat, he adds, is that McCain could "flame out."

But that won't happen if Slatton, the McCain groupie, can help it. After the rally here in Darlington, he shows off his now-autographed copy of the senator's book and tells why he's so impressed.

"Back in Vietnam he wasn't bullied by his captors' beatings into coming home before the other prisoners," Slatton says. "So he's not going to be bullied by some lobbyist waving a $1 million check."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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