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Memphis Flyer The Final Four

The winnowing field of New Hampshire cuts the presidential pool down to size — in more ways than one.

By Jackson Baker

FEBRUARY 14, 2000:  MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Bush: It was not exactly high-grade campaigning, nor was it much of an opportunity to generate any charismatic sparks. George W. Bush, wearing a blue nylon jacket that identified him as Governor of Texas and bore the gubernatorial seal, went bowling on Monday night, January 31st, the eve of voting in the New Hampshire primary. He had also gone sledding that week and ridden a snowmobile. His strategy seemed to be: Up with photo ops, down with press conferences or any other kind of meaningful availability.

Neither Bush nor his entourage of aides and Secret Service men nor the mob of reporters and photographers who congregated around lane 35, all mugging and straining to get the merest response, made much of an impact on the ladies of the various bowling leagues, who remained, or tried to remain, fixated on their games of candlestick pins. "Get out of the way," one woman growled, threading through the newspeople on her way back from the rest room. Even the group of three ladies with whom the Republican presidential frontrunner was playing paid him little heed, though it was clear from their contented smiles that they -- like most people who spent time with the easygoing Bush -- enjoyed his company.

The governor had a nice style -- dynamic, fluid, and even studly. The problem was that almost every one of the diminutive baseball-sized balls he rolled went into the gutter. It was not exactly what you would call auspicious. He seemed too comfortable with himself to be peeved, but an occasional shrug would indicate his frustration. On the other hand, maybe it just indicated his indifference.

Bush was a cool customer, as any reporter or debate opponent who ever tried to get him off his message of "compassionate conservatism" knew. He must have realized that he would finish second in the Republican primary to chief rival John McCain (aides were privately conceding a differential that could stretch as high as 8 points), but as a chart that appeared in the Wall Street Journal would shortly demonstrate, the Texas governor had $32 million in the bank as compared to some $2 million for McCain and lesser amounts for his other remaining rivals -- Steve Forbes, the billionaire publisher and flat-taxer, and Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer, both of them True Believers of the Far Right (an ideological terrain for which Forbes, born again as a social conservative, was also competing).

Not to worry, in other words, especially as a huge majority of Bush's fellow GOP governors and Republicans in Congress had already endorsed him, along with various other party personages. Two more biggies had come around just that week: onetime presidential hopeful Jack Kemp and John Sununu, the ex-New Hampshire governor who had served the candidate's father, President George Bush, as chief of staff but was fired in 1991 after stepping in one too many controversies. The bearer of bad tidings back then had been -- George W. Bush.

Under the circumstances, Bush must have figured he could blow New Hampshire off. Hadn't Democrat Bill Clinton suffered a modest loss there in 1992 (to the late Paul Tsongas) and still taken the marbles from Bush's father?

McCain: Earlier that day, John McCain had made one of his final appearances in front of the statehouse at Concord, rows of stacked yard signs and bronze statues of colonial eminences serving as his backdrop. McCain's speech was perfunctory, a brief distillation of his best punchlines -- "When I started here in New Hampshire, the polls had me at 3 percent, with a margin of error of 5 percent. In other words, I was minus two!" and, upon introducing his blonde wife, Cindy, "All over New Hampshire, they're saying, 'Why isn't she the candidate?'" He promised to be ever truthful and to wage war against "the special interests, the big money, and corruption." McCain ran through his usual litany: a promise (unlike opponent Bush, he let you understand) to husband the nation's surplus wisely and not blow it on wild and excessive tax cuts; a pledge to safeguard Medicare and Social Security; and, above all, a commitment to campaign finance reform, of the thorough-going sort that would eliminate "soft money" and impose a "controlling legal authority" on fund-raising (this latter, of course, was a play on an infelicitous phrase by Gore).

As campaign pyrotechnics went, it wasn't much. But McCain had a star quality, one built almost entirely on his audience's faith in the character of this valiant ex-Navy fighter pilot and Vietnam P.O.W., one that transcended his plain, dumpy looks and his neck wattles and, for that matter, the frat-boy charm of competitor Bush. By this time, as McCain seemed clearly to know, he had become a presence, someone who just needed to Be There. When he was through speaking, he stepped down from the ad hoc platform and began working his way through a crowd that, suddenly and densely, compressed itself around him, everybody wanting a touch, a word, a bit of eye contact with the hero. Standing in that dense flow of bodies, I actually felt myself being moved back in the slowly shifting mass with my feet off the ground. It was a phenomenon I had read about, and, like the ability to find four-leaf clovers, was something that would forever seem implausible until one experienced it for himself. The memory of it would come to mind at the bowling alley later that night, on election day, and (no doubt) for some time to come.

The New Hampshire primary is -- for the nation as well as for me and the several hundred other reporters who crowded into the Granite State in the last week of January -- what is known as a defining occasion. Ever since the state's pioneering primary of 1952, when Tennessee's own Estes Kefauver defeated Harry Truman and forced the then-incumbent president to drop his re-election bid, New Hampshire has set the tone for the quadrennial presidential sweepstake and sometimes called the tune outright.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower was the other big winner in 1952. His sweep of the Republican primary (in which surrogates had entered his name) would coax him out of NATO command and ultimately into the White House. JFK's inevitability in 1960 owed much to his win in New Hampshire. Ronald Reagan had finished off George Bush here in 1988, and Clinton's ability in 1992 to survive disclosures about Gennifer Flowers and draft-dodging among the voters of the Granite State (who gave him a strong second-place showing) allowed him to soldier on to ultimate victory.

Not everybody who has won in New Hampshire has gone on to be elected, but no one who finished well out of the running there has ever gone on to enter the Oval Office, save by express invitation of the inhabitant.

Gore: Almost everybody by now has acknowledged the improvement in Al Gore as a campaigner. He had bridled last spring when Clinton let it be known that his vice president should loosen up more, shmooze with the crowds, press the flesh -- in other words, be like himself, the master of the one-on-one encounter and the town meeting.

And Gore, despite his well-publicized anger at being coached in public, had mastered the style -- sort of. He would never be mesmeric like the incumbent president, but in his own scripted, by-the-numbers way, he could get down, even manage a little Clintonian charm -- which co-existed with a polemic ferocity that was altogether Gore's own.

Both tendencies were evident at a town meeting on Saturday, three days before the election, in a small high school gymnasium in the town of Lebanon, north of Manchester and adjoining the border with Vermont. The townsfolks lined the four rows of benches against one wall, and Gore made some opening remarks in which he continued the give-no-quarter skewering of his absent rival Bill Bradley that he had sustained through two or three recent debates with the former New Jersey senator.

Speaking of Bradley's proposed health-care plan, which many of Gore's critics regard as more comprehensive than his own, the vice president feigned an objective attitude as he affected to analyze the plan. "For whatever reason, Senator Bradley decides not to put any money into Medicare," Gore said deadpan, as if honestly musing over the matter. "He says that if seniors exercise more and eat better, and we have some more medical breakthroughs, we won't need any more Medicare coverage. Well, maybe... ."

This was the sort of thing which had led Bradley to accuse Gore of distortions and to allege other misdeeds and character failings, the mere expression of which were sure to make them campaign fodder for the Republicans in the fall.

It was also the sort of thing, however, that had largely reduced Bradley to insignificance as he alternated between ineffectual attempts to ignore Gore's attacks and the sort of flailing efforts to refute them that allowed the vice president to accuse Bradley of going negative.

Somewhere between the advice of Bill Clinton and that of feminist guru/undercover fashion guide Naomi Wolf, Gore (who wore a sport shirt with jeans that one national reporter chose to call "tight-bunned") had become comfortable with the persona of an Alpha male. Or maybe he always had it (one had only to remember his evisceration of Ross Perot in their televised debate on NAFTA). He would tell a Tennessee reporter on the day of voting that all he was doing was reverting to the style he had before becoming vice president, before he trained himself to bite his lip before speaking on any issue, for fear of interfering with the agenda of the president he served.

Maybe. And Gore had learned to modulate the just-folks small talk that had seemed so staged last October, during his first televised debate with Bradley. He, like the rest of the crowd at Lebanon, seemed genuinely amused when a father introduced his young daughter Tiffany and quoted her as having said about the vice president she was about to meet, "Is that the guy that can't spell 'potato?'"

Gore, in fact, seemed determined to reach out and touch some Norman Rockwell tableau in this, and every other, audience. "Stand up and tell us your name," Gore, a father of three daughters himself, virtually commanded another small girl in the audience. The child rose, announced herself to be "Kate" and delivered herself haltingly of a question about gun control in the schools which the vice president, invoking notions like photo-license IDs and "peer-mediation" programs, just as dutifully answered.

Then he demonstrated his penchant for a mode which might be called the Awkward-Homey.

"Have you ever heard the word 'dis'?" he asked the girl, and, when she nodded Yes, he continued, "If you were going to 'dis' me, what would you say?" There followed a blush from the girl, a group titter from the audience, and, on the other side of the gymnasium, a few bemused looks among the sizable press corps contingent traveling with Gore.

The girl, after thinking for a while, came up with this: "Who would you vote for if you were not a candidate?"

"Ah! That's a much more sophisticated 'dis' than I was expecting," answered Gore. "Usually it's something like, 'Your shoes look ratty.'" (Said the studied and practiced man who never wore anything that looked vaguely "ratty.")

Actually, the dis is usually something like this, from Mickey Kaus of the online magazine Slate, dissertating on the media's apparent bias toward Bradley in words written and posted on the Web virtually simultaneous with the town meeting at Lebanon:

"What I underestimated -- what, indeed, has startled me -- is the extent to which reporters aren't simply boosting Bradley for their own sake, or for Bradley's sake. It's also something else: They hate Gore. They really do think he's a liar. And a phony. They dislike the controlled, canned nature of his campaign events, and hate covering them. They do not perceive that Gore's transformation from bad wooden politician to newly energized attack machine has been accompanied by any infusion of humility. Rather, they see Gore as a bully, and a hypocritical one at that, bellowing about Bradley's negativity when the New Jersey senator finally brings up some fairly obvious Gore vulnerabilities."

The selfsame Kaus, however, observed that the primary contest between Gore and Bradley had become "a class thing," with Bradley, "the thoughtful, almost self-involved scholar ... skewing toward the affluent, while Gore has got the populist, working-class vote." Gore, as Kaus further noted, had developed an image as "the fighter here, fighting for the people."

And indeed Gore the Populist was very much in evidence, insisting at every stop that he would promote, in quantities and in kinds no other candidate could match, education for the child, safeguards for the worker, controls for the environment, and -- in the continuation of the current "Clinton-Gore" prosperity -- economic opportunities for everyone. "Fighting for You" had become his slogan, and his combative way with Bradley was in some ways merely an extension of his vigorous new persona.

But, even as he became noticeably more vital and effective, there was still something in Al Gore's voice, a strained and contrary sort of timbre like that which, in the voice of Entertainment Tonight's Mary Hart, had allegedly caused a California woman to have seizures. Even when he got on a verbal roll of sorts, the vice president's incessant use of canned phrases -- "risky tax schemes" to describe Republican tax-cut proposals, "revolutionary change in education" to denote his ambitious plans for stepped-up federal aid, "a woman's right to choose" to mean legal abortion -- clotted even his most spontaneous lines. Such phrases were not connected to the flow of his language. Like plastic cue cards, they were dropped into it and floated, discrete and unabsorbable, on its surface.

Bradley: Ah, but Bradley should have such problems. As Gore would note in the aftermath of the primary, the lanky ex-Senator had led in polling of New Hampshire voters for some 14 weeks, blowing his lead in the final weeks of the contest through performances that could only be described as feckless. The problem was evident on the Friday night before the election when a group of Memphians including myself had arrived at the Sheraton in Nashua for an official New Hampshire Democratic party fund-raiser.

Delayed by a late takeoff from Memphis and by unanticipated problems at the other end, we arrived after Gore had spoken and while Bradley was midway in his own presentation. Bradley was tall, all right, and that fact, while obvious enough on television and in pictures, gave him unexpected advantages when he was there in person, at the head of a room. He loomed over the crowd and that fact, just as on the hardwood floors he worked as an NBA star for the New York Knicks, gave him a chance to dominate it.

He would let the chance go by the boards. To a crowd that was ready to be aroused, the former Rhodes Scholar from Princeton delivered a quiet homily that might have been mildly satisfying, if a bit dull, had it been spoken to the members of a smallish tutorial. The general tone was summed up in Bradley's call for "a new politics guided by goodness," a phrase so flat that it utterly failed to inspire this crowd of Democrats who, however much they might be moved by "goodness," were guided more by an ambition for victory. It was impossible to find anybody afterward who thought Bradley had done well -- or as well as Gore. Asked who came out ahead, no less an authority than George Stephanopolous, the former Clinton aide who now held forth as a TV pundit, would say, "The vice president!" as if the question had been academic.

I would see Bradley one more time, on the Monday before primary day, at a rally conducted in the cellar of a Manchester brewery. It was almost an anti-appearance. The crowd had waited too long and had become impatient, the light was too low, and when Bradley finally arrived and was introduced, he spent most of his time turning back to kibitz with the people who had preceded him -- the black scholar Cornel West, the actor Ron Silver, and Senators Paul Wellstone and Bob Kerrey.

Not that Bradley didn't have some sensible things to say. More than any other candidate, he has urged a full-out national commitment of the current federal budget surplus to urgent social purposes like universal health care. "I'm appealing to us to fix our roof while the sun is shining," as he put it in the brewery basement. And he touched the crowd there with his frequently cited story of a child who apologized to his mother for getting sick and causing her to spend money the family could ill afford.

But Bradley seemed to rush through his remarks and, when he was through, he fairly quickly came off stage and was shepherded out of the room. Who knew? Everybody was aware of his bouts of cardiac arrhythmia -- which, however much his doctors and other authorities explained them away as harmless, seemed to be increasing and may have done as much as Gore's attacks to erode his hold on the electorate. (At least one exit poll on election day pinpointed concern about Bradley's health as a major factor among Democratic voters.) Maybe there was a reason for Bradley's seemingly abrupt departure. Maybe he was having one of his fibrillating moments and needed, as discreetly as possible, to get away.

However badly Bradley's prospects had been blunted by his own insouciance and Gore's surge, he had enough money -- an estimated $20 million versus Gore's $18 million or so -- to continue through the big primary dates of March 7th (the so-called Super Tuesday, featuring contests in California, New York, Ohio, Massachusetts, and nine other states) and March 14th (featuring primaries across the southern United States including Texas, Florida, and Tennessee). And that he had a mad on at Gore was self-evident from his increasingly bitter attacks on the vice president as one lacking in either principle or veracity.

Gore's partisans -- a group which included the Democratic establishment and most of its core constituencies, notably blacks, women, and labor -- publicly debated amongst themselves as to whether Bradley's remaining in was a Good Thing (he kept the veep in fighting trim and guaranteed that the media would keep a steady eye trained on the Democratic race) or a Bad Thing (his accusations would almost certainly be recycled by Republicans, a process that in fact had already begun on the TV talk shows).

The Also-Rans: Bradley vs. Gore, McCain vs. Bush -- in each case a self-styled insurgent versus an establishment figure: This, clearly, would be the Final Four in an elimination tournament that was good for at least another month.

Not destined for the Prime Time were three lesser Republicans (another member of the original cast, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch had dropped out after finishing with less than a percentage point in the previous week's Iowa caucuses).

These were publisher Steve Forbes and two former Reagan administration officials, Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer. All of them were social conservatives -- i.e., staunch defenders of the pro-life position on abortion -- and all of them seemed to have bet the pot on the existence of an equivalent mood in the electorate.

I had seen Forbes and Keyes in the space of an hour on Sunday, as each appeared before a crowd of the faithful in different corners of the Nashua suburb of Hudson. Keyes, the black conservative whose oxymoronic being as well as his strikingly incendiary syntax had gained him a stronger-than-expected third-place finish in Iowa, addressed a tightly packed mass of supporters in Pete's Gun and Tackle Shop.

This was a red-meat crowd, and Keyes was the butcher. Subjected to the slash and dash of his verbal machete were such iniquities as the income tax ("incompatible with our status as a free people"), the bureaucrats who would force the people to register their guns, the appeasers of the Red Chinese, and -- above all -- the exponents of abortion. Keyes spoke against a backdrop of stuffed birds and animals of various kinds, which hung from the ceiling or dangled from the walls, as well as the prominently displayed guns of various descriptions, the bows and arrows, and other paraphernalia of destruction. It was a little like being in some back room at Norman Bates' house. There was no denying Keyes' eloquence, however, or his delight in fashioning a good sentence. He was clearly having fun listening to himself speak, and so was the crowd, and so, I confess, was I. In a presidential field whose rhetoric, collectively, was rather clunky, Keyes was a flat-out orator.

Once in a while, though, there was a non-sequitur, as when, answering a question about the right of armed self-defense against intruders, Keyes unexpectedly opted to update an English master: "As Hobbes said somewhere in The Leviathan, once they get in, you can't tell what they want. They may take your stereo, and they may take your life."

Across town, Forbes -- clad in the ubiquitous blue suit which, together with his prim spectacles and painted-on grin, gave him an undertaker's look -- was finishing up on a speech at the main ballroom of the Marriott. With his stout but amiable-looking wife standing at his side, the two of them looking like middle-aged preppies on a fun date, the publisher finished up a series of bromides with "Let's reclaim our country, Let's reclaim America," and got an appreciative round of applause. The hotel's sound system then kicked in with "Living in America" by the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown.

Overall, the Forbes affair was a weird mixture of discordant semiotics. Off to one side of the crowd at this Sunday rally was a cash bar, and an aide circulated among the crowd standing in the ballroom, holding a silver tray from which he offered little bite-sized weenies-in-a-blanket.

The third member of this also-ran trio, Bauer, was clearly hanging on the edge, with neither the unlimited funds of Forbes nor the self-propelling fanaticism of Keyes to sustain him any further in case of a poor showing. Bauer had been described by Newsweek as the Church Lady, in tribute to his increasingly self-righteous accusations against other Republicans (in a debate, he trashed Keyes for letting performance artist/activist Michael Moore talk him into diving into a mosh-pit for an episode of The Awful Truth) and by his blithe willingness to declare that, if his daughter should be raped and get pregnant, he would counsel her to accept the circumstance as the Lord's will.

Whether it was by the will of the Almighty or not, Bauer suffered a quite literal reverse on the Monday morning before the election which seemed designed as a symbolic period to his hopes. While participating in a pancake-flipping contest in Manchester, he tumbled backwards and managed to flip himself off the back of the stage -- a moment which was transmitted to the rest of the nation via TV replays later that night and, indeed, for days to come.

For the record, George W. Bush, taking part in the same contest, managed to flip his patty and catch it on the skillet perfectly. It was, perhaps, his last satisfying moment of the campaign.

The denouement of all this has been adequately observed by now. All the exit polls taken by midday on Tuesday indicated what the nation would learn thereafter. At the head of an insurgency which American politics has not seen since (pick one, your choice matters) Eisenhower in 1952, Goldwater in 1964, McGovern in 1972, or Reagan in 1980, Senator McCain would blow away Bush in the GOP primary by a margin of 49 to 31, with Forbes barely making double digits and Keyes and Bauer consigned to the electoral ladder's lowest rungs. (Bauer would, in fact, fall off -- taking his leave from the campaign on Wednesday.) The Democratic race was unexpectedly and ambiguously tight, with Gore beating Bradley by a margin of only 52 to 47 percent -- a result attributed universally to Gore's inability to close the sale among independents rather than to any special grace of his opponent's (although some thought Bradley's last-minute attacks on Gore's had helped the challenger, and might continue to).

At his Manchester celebration, Gore reminded his supporters of the exciting but ultimately disappointing Super Bowl which he, along with many of them, had witnessed via television in a Nashua bistro on Sunday night. At the end of the game, which saw the Tennessee Titans finish a yard away from the touchdown that might have tied the St. Louis Rams, Gore had promised: "We've got another chance. We'll get it back on Tuesday." Finishing up on this comparison on election night, Gore said, "There were those who thought we might finish a bit short, too. But let me tell you, let me tell you, this Tennessean is in the end zone, and it feels great!"

At the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Nashua, victor McCain was preceded on the dais by former New Hampshire Senator Warren Rudman and by a series of old military comrades and fellow inmates of the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" prison, where McCain, whose plane was downed during a bombing raid, had withstood five years of beatings and solitary confinement. McCain stood there, waiting for the tumultuous applause to subside, at once the anointed head of a new political reform movement and the symbolic figure who might finally allow the nation to transcend its only lost war.

"My friends," he would say, "a wonderful New Hampshire primary had come to an end, but a great national crusade has just begun!" "I will always tell you the truth," he pledged a la Jimmy Carter. but without the latter's air of iron-deficiency anemia. McCain would end by saying, "On to South Carolina!" -- a war cry that turned into a chant that rocked the room.

As Rudman had told the crowd, McCain had won among all segments who voted in the GOP primary -- Republicans, independents, even conservatives. What about Democrats?, Rudman was asked later. "They couldn't vote for him without changing their party registrations. But they'll vote for him in November. Tons of them!"

Maybe so, maybe no. But Bush, who was suddenly up against it, had to wonder what the future held. And so did Gore, the presumed ultimate Democratic nominee who carried his party cadres handily in New Hampshire but saw Bradley get a majority of independent voters in the Democratic primary.

As some pundit has observed, the Final Four among presidential candidates -- Gore, Bradley, Bush, McCain -- are all graduates of elite Eastern Seaboard institutions (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, the Naval Academy) and the progeny of American establishmentarians (a senator, a banker, a president, an admiral). There were only two self-declared proles in the field to begin with, the hapless Orrin Hatch and Bauer, one-percenters in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively.

Whatever else they represented, the finalists in the first presidential election of the 21st century represented a consensus. Some of the points of it were: A tax cut would occur, the size and manner of it to be determined; Social Security and Medicare would be shored up, one way or another, on behalf of an increasingly graying population; the nation's military establishment would be enhanced, whether in modest or in major ways; choice in abortion would continue, either by assertive defense of the principle (the two Democrats' position) or by tacit acceptance (the expedient of the two contending Republicans); and gays would find their niche in civilian and military ranks, either by express declaration or by, once again, an agreement to look the other way.

As the early tribunes of a nation that continued to experience a dazzling prosperity, the voters of New Hampshire had seemed to judge all this conspicuous moderation to be good enough. Any genuine reform that might have miraculously turned up would be an unadvertised special.

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