Polls Show McCain Is Surging in S. Carolina
Bush Tries to Calm Fears Among Backers
By Terry M. Neal and Thomas B. Edsall
The polls, following McCain's 19-point drubbing of the Texas governor in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, have left the Bush camp scrambling to reassure nervous party officials and supporters around the country about the viability of their candidate.
The campaign challenged McCain's credentials on veterans issues and tried to portray the senator as too liberal for South Carolina's primary voters. And this weekend, Bush campaign officials plan to return to Austin to regroup and retool strategy.
A Zogby International poll taken one day after the New Hampshire primary shows the Arizona senator leading Bush, 44 percent to 39 percent in South Carolina, whose primary is Feb. 19. Another poll, by Rasmussen Research, had Bush leading 41 percent to 40 percent, a statistical dead heat.
The poll numbers represent an astonishing turnaround from last month, when Bush had a 20-point lead over McCain in South Carolina, and from December, when he had a 45-point lead. The net effect has been to erode the aura of invincibility Bush once carried. The campaign has responded by stepping up attacks on McCain--a strategy many supporters have urged.
Bush told a crowd of about 350 people at a courthouse here that he is the best candidate to be commander-in-chief, while surrogates launched a more frontal attack on McCain's record. "We must have a commander-in-chief who understands the role of the military," he said.
McCain reacted with gusto to those attacks on his record on defense and veterans issues: "Well, why don't we have a real good debate on veterans affairs, defense and foreign policy? Any time, anywhere. We'll pay for the TV time."
Asked if this was a sign of desperation by the Bush campaign, McCain said, "I don't know if it's desperate, but it is bizarre to somehow allege that John McCain has not been a defender of veterans and the military."
As the candidates did battle in South Carolina, a number of Bush supporters around the country began turning up the public relations war, cold-calling supporters to urge calm and playing down the New Hampshire loss and South Carolina poll numbers with reporters. This week, members of the Republican Governors Association, which has endorsed Bush, vowed to ramp up their political machines in support of Bush.
"I think a number of people were startled, stunned and surprised [by the new polls], but not me," said Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating (R). "A loss muscles up a team. And we're back in the weight run. The defeat in New Hampshire was stunning, but the national campaign is just beginning."
Many other GOP officials who back Bush were reluctant to speak publicly but acknowledged privately that they are worried and frustrated by the way Bush is running his campaign. A number of GOP officials on Capitol Hill and around the states said today Bush has run a lackluster campaign.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (Va.) said most lawmakers were waiting to see how McCain fared in South Carolina before drawing any conclusions about Bush's performance, but the New Hampshire primary had gotten their attention. "There's a great feeling of uncertainty about the presidential race with McCain," Davis said.
Marc Rotterman, a political strategist who raised $500,000 for Bush last year, said there was a sense of inevitability about Bush's candidacy just a few weeks ago that is starting to evaporate. "I've talked to a lot of people who are Bush supporters, and I would say they are concerned," said Rotterman.
Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, said he has been receiving phone calls all day from worried Bush supporters. He said many complained that Bush seemed not to get the message from New Hampshire.
"Tuesday night was bad, but Wednesday was terrible," said Kristol, who is neutral in the race. "He goes to a staged event at Bob Jones University--a place that bans interracial dating--reads an uninteresting speech and gets Dan Quayle to endorse him."
When reached at his office today, another Republican strategist in Washington joked: "If you look back to your east, you'll see smoke coming out of the windows of the Capitol and people jumping out."
Not everyone was alarmed, and several Bush supporters noted that New Hampshire voters are hardly representative of the rest of the country. One California Republican who asked not to be identified said most lawmakers viewed that primary as an anomaly. "I don't see anyone wringing their hands about it," he said of the Bush camp. "If McCain beats him in South Carolina, then you'll start seeing some sweaty brows."
Throughout the day, Bush sought to minimize any suggestion that he and his campaign aides have been thrown off their game by the results in New Hampshire and by McCain's apparent South Carolina surge.
"You know what I say, tell them to hold their breath," Bush said as he campaigned in South Carolina. "They've got someone on the way to the Republican nomination who is going to lead us to victory."
Despite his public displays of optimism, Bush repeatedly signaled irritation at the McCain campaign and the success of its tactics. "All of a sudden in the course of the debate, I'm tagged as the guy who is kind of the Washington guy. I'm not going to let that happen to me in South Carolina," Bush told reporters. "His [McCain's] claim that he is the outsider is a claim I'm not going to let him get away with."
The Bush campaign has been banking on South Carolina to serve as a firewall to reaffirm the Texan's front-runner status. The state backed his father in 1988 and Robert J. Dole in 1996. And in Bush's concession speech in New Hampshire Tuesday night, he referred optimistically to the state as "Bush country."
Asked about the Zogby poll findings today, Bush--who had just learned of the results as he walked into the news conference--at first appeared taken aback, producing incomplete sentences. Then he said, "If it is, it is. I'm going to win this state."
McCain has targeted South Carolina as key to his strategy. And crucial to either candidate's support will be the vote of veterans and military families, who make up a greater percentage of the population than any other state in the country.
At the rally here, Bush supporter J. Thomas Burch Jr., chairman of the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition, told the crowd that McCain as a senator had frequently opposed legislation of interest to veterans, including health care for Gulf War veterans and locating those missing in action from Vietnam. "He had the power to help the veterans," Burch said. "He came home [from Vietnam] and forgot us."
Bush declined to either endorse or reject Burch's characterization of McCain's record in the House and Senate. "You need to ask them [leaders of veterans groups]. What I stand by is that they have looked at both of us and they have chosen me to be the nominee. I'm proud of that." Bush did say that he thinks "John McCain served our country well, he was a warrior on behalf of America."
At the four South Carolina rallies he held today, McCain pledged to improve veterans' benefits and jabbed at Bush's lack of experience in defense and foreign policy. "I am fully qualified to be commander-in-chief," he said. "I don't need any on-the-job training."
McCain operatives said they are bracing for a strong Bush counterattack, and aboard his bus, McCain reiterated his pledge not to engage in negative campaigning but said that he would "respond" quickly to any Bush attacks.
At a news conference in Beaufort, S.C., this morning, McCain said that in little more than 24 hours since his New Hampshire victory his campaign raised more than $600,000 on its Internet site and received offers of help from more than 4,000 new volunteers. Later today, McCain aides said the Internet fund-raising had reached $741,000 since the polls closed in New Hampshire Tuesday night.
Neal reported from Washington. Staff writer Edward Walsh with McCain contributed to this report.
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