Frame Game

The McCain Challenge

Spanked out of their front-running stupor by John McCain’s win in New Hampshire, George W. Bush and his advisers retreated to Austin, Texas, over the weekend to organize a counterattack. This week in South Carolina they began pummeling McCain with new messages and tactics. One or more of these strategies may well halt McCain and clear Bush’s path to the nomination. But it matters a great deal which strategy gets the job done. Bush’s prospects of winning the presidency depend not just on whether he beats McCain, but how. And the easiest ways to beat McCain are the least helpful to Bush in the general election.

The easiest way for Bush to beat McCain in South Carolina is to call him a liberal. Bush and his surrogates are blasting McCain for opposing Bush’s big tax cut, promoting cigarette taxes, and crusading for campaign reforms that would allegedly hurt the GOP. Bush also courted South Carolina’s right wing by speaking at Bob Jones University, which forbids interracial dating. These tactics may help Bush win one of the nation’s most conservative primaries. But in the process, Bush may squander his “compassionate conservative” image, neutralize Al Gore’s vulnerability on campaign fund raising, and help Gore tar Bush as the candidate of segregation, big tobacco, and fiscal recklessness.

The next easiest way to beat McCain is to carpet-bomb his character. Bush is already airing TV ads that imply McCain is corrupt, and he is telling reporters that McCain’s attacks on him expose McCain’s “true nature.” McCain has a very positive image, but South Carolinians don’t know him well, and their default preference is to vote for Bush if at all. If Bush can drag McCain into a mud fight that makes both men look bad, McCain’s momentum will dissipate. Even if undecided voters become disgusted and refuse to vote for Bush, they probably won’t vote for McCain either. That would be enough to deprive McCain of victory and begin choking off his oxygen. But this strategy carries two costs. It soils Bush’s image in the general election, and it ruins McCain as a running mate. Since McCain appeals to many independents, and Democrats who don’t like Bush, Bush-McCain would be a formidable ticket. That’s why Bush wanted to capture McCain alive. If he captures McCain dead, Bush will have lost his best asset against Gore.

Bush is also fending off McCain with tactical tricks. These tricks aren’t as dangerous to Bush as the preceding two strategies are, but they’re not enormously helpful, either. First, Bush is learning how to knock an opponent off his game. McCain, like Bill Bradley, is running as a statesman. Gore bumped Bradley off that game by attacking him and drawing him into a fight, which made Bradley look like just another politician. Bush is doing the same to McCain. By practicing this technique against McCain, Bush may learn how to use it against Gore. But it’s just a technique. It doesn’t improve anything fundamental about Bush.

Another trick in Bush’s bag is to change the question on voters’ minds. Lately, many Republicans have asked themselves whether Bush is fit to be president. Concluding that he isn’t, they have decided not to vote for him. In South Carolina, Bush is reversing that scrutiny. He is challenging the media and the electorate to ask whether McCain is fit to be president. Many people who would have voted for McCain to “send a message” to the Republican establishment will back off when they consider that their votes might actually sweep him into office. This is a handy trick for beating a little-known senator. But it’s not much good against a vice president who is closely identified with the best economy ever.

Bush’s cleverest stratagem has been to shift attention from McCain’s military career to his political career. The most common thing voters in New Hampshire knew about McCain was that he had been a POW in Vietnam, whereas Bush was the son of a president. Bush wants voters in South Carolina to associate McCain less with the Hanoi Hilton than with the Washington Hilton. So the Bush camp refers constantly to “Chairman McCain” and accuses him of serving lobbyists while posing as a reformer. McCain’s political career is no more remarkable than Bradley’s, and his charm can evaporate just as quickly if voters and reporters scrutinize it.

Each of these three tricks hurts McCain, but a fourth helps Bush: By pummeling McCain, Bush proves his manhood. This seems silly, but it worked for Gore. Last summer, everyone agreed that Bradley looked bold, whereas Gore looked complacent and timid. So Gore jumped out of his chariot and beat Bradley senseless. Gore twisted every truth that got in his way, but pundits and Democratic voters loved it. Now everyone hails Gore as a “fighter” with “fire in the belly.” Bush is attempting a similarly macho makeover, promising to “take it to” McCain. If Bush spins as expertly as Gore, he, too, can pass himself off as a “fighter” rather than a mudslinger.

Bush can help himself most in the general election by winning South Carolina in the two most difficult ways. The first is to steal McCain’s message, which Bush is trying to do by repackaging himself as a “reformer with results.” Bush’s ads and press releases now boast that he has “taken on” education bureaucrats, trial lawyers, and other entrenched interests. Most people don’t understand McCain’s reform proposals, but they infer that he’s courageous, and they love him for it. If Bush can absorb some of that magic, it will help him against Gore. But for Bush, it’s a reach. He earned his lead by courting the Republican establishment, and he keeps deploying Washington politicians on the campaign trail. To reposition himself as a reformer, he’ll have to shed the big names and face the voters on his own.

The best way to beat McCain is even harder. While Bush coasted through New Hampshire with scripted speeches and superficial rallies, McCain invited thousands of questions at scores of town meetings. Now Bush is toying with McCain’s format. He’s getting rid of his podium, shortening his speeches, and fielding more questions. When McCain adopted this format, he was sending a message: “Here I am, with nobody to protect me. Give me your best shot. I can take it. I can think on my feet. I’m up to the job.” Can Bush handle the same challenge? If he tries and fails in South Carolina, he might lose his shot at the presidency. But only by trying can he prove he deserves it.