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Hold Off on the Coronation
Political Junkie
Send your questions about campaigns and elections.

By Ken Rudin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, February 7, 2000

Question: Can you explain the rationale of the Bush campaign for trotting out Republican has-beens such as former President Bush, Governor Sununu and Secretary Kemp in the final days before the New Hampshire primary? Seems to me that these fellows serve to remind Republicans of the lopsided defeats suffered in the 1992 and 1996 national elections and go against Bush's claim that he can win in November. I also see that Dan Quayle is making appearances for Bush in South Carolina. Quayle may be a nice guy but I doubt that a guy who couldn't even make it to the primaries has much influence over voters anywhere. For all of Governor Bush's advantages in money, organization and endorsements, the high-priced advisers have tin political ears. – Andrew Wong, New York, N.Y.

Answer: So many things went wrong for the Bush campaign in New Hampshire that it's hard to pinpoint the deciding factor. Endorsements are usually overrated, but Bush is overloaded with them, and some say that in itself may have backfired.

Bringing his parents into the state was also a questionable strategy. They are beloved figures in many Republican circles, but his father was president during a very economically trying time, especially in New Hampshire, where people have not forgotten what it was like. The last time I had been in the state was in 1992, and almost everywhere I went there was evidence of an economy in turmoil. President Bush's narrow primary victory against Pat Buchanan that year was attributed to the recession that was costing people their homes and businesses. Compare that to what I saw on the streets of Manchester last week: a booming economy, a stream of new, upscale businesses and restaurants, a rebirth in spirit. Paraphrasing Ronald Reagan's "Are you better off?" question, New Hampshire looks to be in far better shape now than it did eight years ago. Bringing the elder Bush into the state may have only reminded people of what things were like under his administration.

McCain's convincing win in N.H. surprised everyone. (Collection of Ken Rudin)
While endorsements have never made much of a difference in the Granite State – witness Buchanan's win in '96 – they are more important in tradition-minded South Carolina, which votes on Feb. 19. It's a place that historically has rescued wounded GOP front-runners, as it did for Bob Dole four years ago. And the big Republican honchos of South Carolina, led by former governor Carroll Campbell, are solidly in Bush's corner. So, on paper anyway, South Carolina is a state that could be expected to revive Bush's candidacy following the debacle in New Hampshire. But after watching McCain stun the experts by winning last week in nearly every possible demographic group, we're just going to have to wait and see what happens.

There is no party registration in South Carolina, nor is there a Democratic contest on the 19th, so any voter could participate in the GOP primary – including mischievous Democrats who might like to further embarrass Bush. There is some evidence that many of the overwhelming number of independents who voted for McCain in New Hampshire were Democratic-leaning voters who decided to humiliate the Texas governor. Democrats couldn't vote in the New Hampshire Republican primary, but they can in South Carolina.

The message the voters of New Hampshire sent could reshape the GOP race in ways no one could have imagined. Or it could just be another blip on the screen, a passing fancy, as we saw in 1984, when Gary Hart won the Democratic primary, or in 1996 with Buchanan. Looking back, these events proved to be little more than a bunch of Yankees having fun at the front-runner's expense. Stay tuned.

Question: I heard reference to "the first primary of the election year" taking place in N.H. I always thought the first primary was in Iowa, but I've since seen references to the Iowa "caucuses." What's the difference between a caucus and a primary? – Heidi Waters, Charlottesville, Va.

Answer: A primary is like a general election; each voter casts his or her ballot in the privacy of a booth at a designated voting precinct. A caucus is a meeting of people whose commonality is that they profess membership in the same party. It can take place in someone's basement or a church hall, anyplace that can accommodate a sizable group of people; there are about 2,500 such locations in Iowa. They sit and discuss the issues of the day, deal with regular party business, and then split up into groups supporting different presidential candidates. Usually the parties conduct a straw poll, but the process of selecting national convention delegates must go through several levels – county conventions, congressional district conventions and then the state convention, when the national delegates are actually awarded.

Carter's strong showing in the Iowa caucuses propelled him to the presidency. (Collection of Ken Rudin)
Iowa had been holding caucus-like meetings for decades, but they first drew national attention in 1972, when organizers for Democrat George McGovern made a strong effort in the state and did better than expected against front-runner Ed Muskie. Four years later Jimmy Carter expanded on McGovern's strategy and spent long hours campaigning in the state. Garnering widespread media coverage, he went from "Jimmy Who?" to capturing the New Hampshire primary and, ultimately, the Democratic nomination and the presidency. Since then, Iowa has become a must-visit state, although this year John McCain is thought to have made a smart decision by bypassing the caucus, given his lack of enthusiasm for ethanol subsidies. By the same token, Bill Bradley, who was pitted against a strong pro-Gore labor effort in Iowa, has been faulted for making the effort.

Organization is crucial for a good showing in the caucuses, because, unlike voting in a primary, attendance in a caucus can last two hours or more. A strong organization is necessary for a campaign to get its supporters out of the house on a cold night to make such a commitment.

Question: Why hasn't the press asked Al Gore about the fact that his boss Bill Clinton never tried to remove the Confederate flag from flying in Arkansas? The issue will not go away for Bush and the Republicans, but the media don't bring up the issue of the Arkansas flag. How come? – Jack Kalavritinos, Washington, D.C.

Answer: The Confederate flag does not fly in Arkansas. However, a prominent star in the state flag commemorates the Confederacy. The Washington Times has often pointed out that in 1987 while governor, Clinton signed a bill that designated the star for the Confederacy, and that he also proclaimed a birthday memorial for Jefferson Davis, who was the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

There is little doubt that the flying of the Confederate flag over South Carolina is offensive to many African Americans; some 50,000 people marched in Columbia recently demanding its removal. But the fact remains that it only recently became a cause to rally around, even though it's been there for years. To the best of my knowledge, there was never a demand for the star's removal from the Arkansas flag at any time during Clinton's tenure as governor. Nor have I heard of any mention of it by the vice president, unlike his comments regarding the South Carolina flag.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: junkie@washingtonpost.com

Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio, is also the creator of washingtonpost.com's ScuttleButton contest.

© Copyright 2000 Ken Rudin

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