The too-unorthodox opponents

In the end, the strengths of McCain and Bradley were also their weaknesses.

Journalists across the land are weeping in their Wheaties over the thought that John McCain's Straight Talk Express is probably grinding to a halt.

No more rolling 18-hour press conferences fueled by Dunkin Donuts. No more stupid candidate tricks, such as Senator McCain jumping out of his seat, cool shades in place, to wave wildly at a television cameraman dangling dangerously out of his van as it cruises alongside McCain's bus.

But even as it is ending, the McCain insurgency - which, for a time, appeared on the verge of toppling the GOP's favorite-son candidate, George W. Bush - will live on, leaving a legacy to be scrutinized for years.

Bill Bradley, too, the Democratic almost-insurgent expected to drop out of the race imminently, leaves his own legacy. In a broad sense, both men sought to do the same thing: challenge the orthodoxy of down-and-dirty presidential campaigning by running high-minded crusades that would slap at their parties' establishments and, they hoped, bring a sleeping electorate to life.

McCain almost succeeded. Former Senator Bradley failed. And with both, it was the very qualities that made the public stop and take notice that ultimately proved their undoing.

Taken together, McCain and Bradley were like bookends. One was a hypercandidate, open and accessible, at times raucous. The other was soft-spoken and cerebral, the uncandidate who ultimately slapped away the media and lost the benefit of their doubt.

"John McCain may not get the chance to tear up the 40,000-page tax code, but he has torn up the playbook for how to run for president," says Jay Severin, a New York-based Republican strategist.

"McCain had the sizzle and the steak - that is, he could spin, but he also had the product," Mr. Severin adds. "He was the candidate who could sit on the bus and talk to you guys all day. He had the brains and the charm."

By opening himself up to the media so completely, he took an enormous risk: At all moments, the notebooks were open, the video cameras and tape recorders were running. One false move, one egregious or dumb remark, and that could have been the end.

Instead, he won the press's respect and affection, and untold millions of dollars' worth of free, positive media. But, say political consultants, very few politicians have the temperament or intellect to duplicate that feat.

In the end, what did in McCain was not anything he said on the Straight Talk Express but statements he made in prepared public remarks - his bitter concession speech after losing the South Carolina primary and then two straight days of negative attacks on leaders of the religious right, which alienated a significant element of the Republican electorate and took McCain away from his positive message of reform.

McCain, like Bradley, won and lost by running his campaign his own way. Both were their own closest advisers, listening to others but ultimately going their own way.

Within their own campaigns, they were mavericks - and in the heat of crucial moments, that led to blunders. For McCain, the still-unexplained decision not to take part in last week's debate in California, over the objections of his communications director, proved a big blow to his prospects in the nation's biggest state. Though McCain later reversed his decision - participating via satellite - the damage was done.

Both McCain and Bradley also took big risks in their pledges to take the high road in the face of attacks from their opponents, in effect disarming themselves.

The strategy revealed a perhaps fatal, inherent flaw in their attempts to go against politics-as-usual: The public says it is repulsed by negative campaigning - so McCain and Bradley sought to oblige by avoiding it - but negativity often works. It is no coincidence that the two probable combatants in the general election - Texas Governor Bush and Vice President Al Gore - are the two who were willing to play tough during the primaries.

So can mavericks ever win? History shows they almost never do, especially at a time of peace and prosperity.

Historian Allan Lichtman notes that the last maverick to win his party's nomination was George McGovern, the Democratic nominee in 1972 - and he had the Vietnam War to propel him.

"It's very difficult to overcome the advantages of money, organization, and name recognition unless there is a burning issue," says Professor Lichtman of American University.

"There are very rarely burning issues for insurgents to use. McCain had a good issue with cleaning out Washington, but he had to pull against the fact that most Americans are pretty satisfied with how the country is going."

The big question now is whether McCain will take his insurgency to the next level by quitting the Republican Party and running as an independent, perhaps in Ross Perot's Reform Party.

For now, pundits predict he will remain a Republican, and McCain himself has repeatedly stated as much. But no one, including McCain, expected his straight-talk campaign to go as far as it did, and, in the wake of Super Tuesday, only McCain himself knows for sure if he's willing to let his movement end.

At week's end, McCain appeared set to drop out of the Republican race.

But even if McCain himself leaves the presidential arena, he has opened a Pandora's box of possibilities for a future governing coalition by appealing so broadly across the political spectrum.

In a way, some analysts say, McCain was like Mr. Perot with a war record, in his ability to win millions of independent voters' hearts.

Increasingly, the American electorate is affiliated with neither major political party. And the race is now on for each party to try to harness the hearts of those whom McCain pulled out of the ether.

"I'm convinced," says Republican strategist Whit Ayres of Atlanta, "that whoever figures out how to marry Perot and independent voters with the existing base in either party is going to govern for a generation."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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