If McCain stumbles, whither his legions?

If today's primaries disappoint 'McCainiacs,' many may bury their political fervor - for now.

Two burly but jovial brothers have just slipped into a packed high school gym here - barely in time to see a raucous campaign rally for John McCain.

The 30-something siblings, Kevin and Jonathan Moore, disagree on many things - from music to fashion to politics. But this year they concur on one thing: They want Mr. McCain to be president.

Like many "McCainiacs," they've come together from across the political map to back the straight-talking war hero, injecting an eclectic new energy into American politics.

But today's Super Tuesday contests - including votes in New York, California, and Ohio - are the biggest test yet for McCain's movement. If he wins enough of the races, his fans could hold together, super-glue tight. But if his march is halted today, as polls suggest it might be, a big question looms: Where will the McCain "orphans" go?

In the short term, they're likely to scatter, some going to Vice President Al Gore, a few to Texas Gov. George W. Bush, and many just staying home. But in the long term, they may go underground - and re-emerge for a candidate with the right combination of personality and platform.

After such a "green spring" of voter enthusiasm, "November may be pretty brown" if McCain loses, says David Gillespie, a political scientist at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C.

But win or lose, McCain and his legions have proved that the entrenched world of establishment politics can still be infused with new energy - and that it is not immune to voter-driven reform. As Dr. Gillespie puts it, "The system does still respond to the law of supply and demand."

For the Moore brothers, McCain is an inspiring response to exactly what's needed in American politics. "I'm not a veteran, but I just trust him - partly because he is one," says Jonathan, a button-down, conservative father of a two-year-old. "And trust is key."

Kevin, by contrast, is a more liberal, plaid-shirt-wearing itinerant roofer who recently moved to Minnesota.

Asked who they'd choose if McCain loses, they further highlight their differences. "Oh," says Kevin with a smile, "I'd vote for Ralph Nader" - the consumer advocate and fringe presidential candidate. Jonathan counters, with near-zero enthusiasm, "I'd go for Bush, I guess."

No second-choice consensus

They aren't the only ones with polar-opposite second-choice picks.

In the midst of this rally-turned-rock-concert, in which banks of speakers blare out 1980s rap songs and Ricky Martin's "La Vida Loca," two feisty women - both registered Democrats - have found their hero.

"Washington needs a thorough cleaning," says Linnet Fritz, who wears a lime-green pantsuit with a bumble-bee pin on her lapel. The straight-talking McCain is the one to do it. "I'm tired of all the lying," she says. So tired, in fact, that if McCain loses - and the choices come down to Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore - she'd probably vote for Bush, despite being a Democrat.

But her friend, Joan, who asked that her last name not be used, would have none of it. Bush is inexperienced, she says: "We don't need an intern in the Oval Office." She would vote for Gore.

All in all, if McCain fizzles, a mad scramble for his voters can be expected to ensue. But analysts say other candidates may have trouble wooing McCain orphans - especially if McCain doesn't actively campaign for Bush in the fall.

"This is a unique group of people who aren't necessarily headed toward someone else," says Washington political analyst Charles Cook. They're typically moderate - pro-gun-control, backing abortion rights, and for shoring up Social Security - "so they won't gravitate toward Bush." But they're also "offended by President Clinton, so they won't go for Gore."

And Pat Buchanan?

Even the potential Reform Party candidate, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, is poorly positioned to attract these voters. Ultimately, Mr. Cook says, "I think a lot of them won't vote."

Other analysts see Gore as likely to pick up McCain voters - especially if he tries to copy McCain's reform mantra.

"Gore will probably come out as a reformer, especially on campaign finance," says Bruce Cain, a political analyst at the University of California at Berkeley. It may work for those who support McCain for reform issues, but as for McCain's "action-hero worshippers," he says, "they'll probably stay home."

But in the end, McCain has showed there's room in American politics for a "militant middle," says Gillespie. This movement could easily re-emerge for someone who runs as a populist aiming to shake up the system.

Militant is the right word for high school senior Steve Yonkof of Brecksville, Ohio. Although he leans Republican, he has an almost visceral contempt for Bush - mostly because of the candidate's establishment ties and dynastic heritage. Sporting a T-shirt that reads, "McCain Not Cocaine" - a reference to Bush's rumored but unproven cocaine use decades ago - he says, "Bush is daddy's little boy. I just don't like him."

With that, he heads off into the perhaps-momentary euphoria that fills the air in a gym packed with McCain and his faithful groupies.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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