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IT'S MAKE OR BREAK FOR BRADLEY, MCCAIN

They both attacked the system. They both rejected traditional tactics. They both practiced the politics of "authenticity." They both found comfort -- and a voice -- as underdogs.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey both took big gambles in Iowa. They both now know that the life of their unconventional campaigns depends on the famously unpredictable and oftentimes unfathomable voters of New Hampshire. But as the days before the first primary grow short, the two men are in vastly different positions.

McCain didn't campaign in Iowa and awakened to find that his position in the Republican field was stronger the morning after his fifth-place finish in the caucuses than it had been the evening before. Bradley poured $2 million and the equivalent of 11 weeks of campaigning into Iowa and emerged from it weaker in the Democratic contest than he had been before.

The position of the insurgents is, to be sure, determined by the nature of the front-runners they are challenging. In the Republican contest, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas has lacked confidence and drive, and New Hampshire voters, with an especially sharp instinct for vulnerability, have withheld their enthusiasm so far. That's provided an opening for McCain, who had this state to himself for nearly a week while his rivals sparred in Iowa over farm policy and abortion -- secondary themes in the New Hampshire primary.

In the Democratic contest, Vice President Al Gore has stayed on the attack and has stayed, in the shopworn phrase so favored by insiders, on-message, reassuring New Hampshire Democrats that he could bring a spirited fight to the general election in November. His strong finish in Iowa only buttressed his position as front-runner.

The big difference between the two insurgents may have been McCain's willingness to forgo one idiosyncratic, unrepresentative and peculiar state (Iowa) in favor of another idiosyncratic, unrepresentative and peculiar state (New Hampshire) -- and Bradley's unwillingness to sacrifice one for the other.

Last week, McCain's decision looked like a gamble. This week the tactic looks like a symbol of the candidate's iron discipline.

In truth, McCain formulated a strategy and stuck with it, against the advice of the pros, against the wailings of the commentators, against history. And the history most often cited was that of Gore himself, who skipped Iowa in 1988 and never recovered.

If McCain loses Tuesday the strategy will be toast, but if he prevails, it will be porridge for politicos for a generation. He decided that morning to run on a reform platform, wagering that New Hampshire was more important than Iowa, that voters here would still grow weak-kneed at direct, no-nonsense campaigning.

He decided to visit every chamber of commerce he could find, every Rotary Club that would have him, every country radio station that would open its doors and its airwaves. He vowed to hold a minimum of 100 town meetings in a state that, despite enormous change, still holds town meetings every March; he notched his 100th town meeting the very day Bush won the Iowa caucuses.

A finding deep within a recent Washington Post/ABC News Poll -- ignored by analysts, critical to voters -- showed the value of McCain's decision to remain in the Granite State. Among all the questions the pollsters asked of New Hampshire voters, McCain's advantage over Bush was widest when they were asked which candidate has "worked especially hard to win support in your state?"

Likely Democratic primary voters split evenly among Gore and and Bradley. Likely Republican primary voters gave a 25 percentage point advantage to McCain over Bush.

In the next several days, the candidates will go where the people are, seldom straying beyond Concord. In truth, there is little more Bradley or McCain can do. Even if, as surveys show, voters decide late, the forces that shape their decisions already have been set loose. New Hampshire voters in this period of the process are like the smelts of northern New England. They're caught on the incoming tide.

Universal Press Syndicate

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