The sudden superstar

Transformed into a folk hero by the adoring media, John McCain has the momentum in U.S. campaign


Friday, February 11, 2000

Washington -- His face is on the cover of all three national newsmagazines. His campaign is flooded with thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars. His crowds are growing. His popularity is rising.

If Arizona Senator John McCain was a war hero before his stunning victory in the New Hampshire primary last week, today he is a folk hero. In a country in love with celebrity, Mr. McCain has become something of an overnight phenomenon -- a media darling, a white knight, a populist, a rebel, a crusader, and now, quite possibly, the next president of the United States.

As his juggernaut sweeps through South Carolina, where he is in a tight race in the pivotal primary on Feb. 19 with the Republican frontrunner, Texas Governor George Bush -- Mr. McCain is becoming something larger than himself, a tribune of a new politics.

"There's something a little bit magical going on out there," he said in disbelief after 1,000 people turned out for a rally in Georgetown, S.C., four times the number he had expected. "There's something happening out there."

From the media, the tone is breathless. The McCain Mutiny, declare both Time and U.S. News and World Report. McCain's Big MO, announces Newsweek, hailing Mr. McCain as "the rock star of politics." And while he has not yet made the cover of Rolling Stone, he has appeared on the cover of The Economist.
"You can't get any hotter than this in politics," Newsweek gushed. "At least for now, McCain has found something deep and defining in American politics."

Mutiny or momentum, this is John McCain's moment. But what is it? And can it last?

"It is a populist rebellion," said Prof. Allan Lichtman, a historian at American University in Washington. "The news is that Americans are not as apathetic about politics as we thought they were. McCain has tapped into a hidden vein of discontent about politics as it is practised."

Prof. Lichtman, who still thinks Mr. McCain has no more than a 40-per-cent chance of winning his party's nomination, said the senator has touched a constituency of Americans -- many of them independents, many who don't usually vote -- with his candour, his character and his new conservatism.

Mr. McCain wants to end the power of special interests, return dignity to the Oval Office, and call for service and sacrifice.

New Hampshire realigned the race and rattled the establishment. On the Internet -- one of the tools of the new politics Mr. McCain has exploited -- about 12,000 volunteers signed up and $1-million (U.S.) was raised in the 48 hours after the primary.

His fortunes have changed so fast that Mr. McCain warns of cockiness in South Carolina -- a call that would have seemed ludicrous a week ago.

What explains his success? At root, he is rewriting the rules of presidential politics while matching his message and the moment.

First, Mr. McCain shrewdly decided to concentrate his resources in New Hampshire, whose quirky, contrarian voters he hoped would like his independence.

He plans to capitalize on the race as it moves state to state in its early stages, allowing him to spend time in each of them before the big multiple primaries on March 7 and March 14, where many of the convention delegates will be chosen.

By early March, Mr. McCain hopes to have won enough primaries to create momentum so overwhelming that he can overcome Mr. Bush's advantages in endorsements, money and organization. (Yesterday, Mr. Bush won the endorsements of some supporters of publisher Steve Forbes, who quit the Republican race without backing either candidate.)

Second, Mr. McCain stressed his character and his story. Once he was reluctant to talk about his experiences as a U.S. Navy pilot shot down over North Vietnam in 1967 and imprisoned and tortured for 5½ years, but it is now a pillar of his candidacy.

His autobiography, Faith of My Fathers, has been a U.S. bestseller for months. Newsweek reports that supporters attending his events clutch his book "like sacred missals on the way to mass."

Third, he freely exploited the news media. He invited reporters on board his bus, and he talked endlessly. Mr. McCain did something extraordinary for a politician: he wasn't afraid to acknowledge he was flawed (an unruly sailor, an unfaithful husband and an intemperate legislator) and he wasn't afraid to say he didn't know why.

In flattering coverage that has angered Mr. Bush's camp ("You've sold out for a bus ticket and cup of coffee," a Bush aide moaned), the media have reflected a central truth about Mr. McCain's appeal: Even those who disagree with him have come to like him.

It has been suggested that few Republicans have been greeted this warmly other than "transformational figures" such as Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt, who are among Mr. McCain's personal heroes.

Last, Mr. McCain positioned himself as the outsider, although he has been in Congress for years. He rails against "the special interests" even as he accepts money from them.

His key promise -- to reduce the national debt and protect social security before cutting taxes -- contrasts with Mr. Bush, who proposes a deep tax cut. If his domestic agenda is thin beyond that, Mr. McCain stresses his expertise in foreign and military affairs.

Most striking, in a country weary of scandal in the White House, Mr. McCain has portrayed himself as the "anti-Clinton." His simple promise -- "I will tell the truth" -- resonates among Americans.

The appeal is reminiscent of Jimmy Carter, the Georgia governor who swept to the presidency in 1976. Two years after Richard Nixon resigned, he promised, "I will never lie to you."

Still, despite his early success, many believe Mr. McCain will falter in a long primary season that could extend until June.

According to the conventional wisdom, Mr. Bush's advantage in money (he has raised $70-million) and organization (he has operations in all states) will make the difference.

Up to now, however, the conventional wisdom has been wrong about John McCain.

Original article