As the controversy over John McCain's letters-to-the-regulator roils his presidential campaign, voters in the early primary states are reacting with a unanimous verdict: "Huh?"
"What's that?" asks Dave Andrews, a Columbia retiree, when questioned today about the matter after he stops in at the McCain headquarters downtown to volunteer. "I haven't heard about it, and I read the local paper."
"I'm not aware of anything you're talking about," says Tom Peach, who has come to hear McCain speak in his hometown of Camden, S.C., at about the time McCain's campaign is dumping 2,000 pages of the Arizona senator's official letters in Washington.
Few voters seem to have heard about McCain's letters to the Federal Communications Commission and other agencies, and few seem to care even when the situation is explained to them. "Say it again?" says Ashley Vaughn, a high school senior attending a McCain youth event here who, along with classmate Michelle Schaeffer, is perplexed by the whole controversy. "And we're in AP government," Vaughn says.
There's a disconnect on the campaign trail between the press and the public when it comes to McCain's regulatory correspondence: Voters don't ask about it at all, while reporters ask about nothing else. MSNBC anchor Brian Williams, moderating the GOP debate Friday night in Columbia, made the topic his first question to McCain. After the debate, journalists crowded four or five deep around the candidate to hit him with more questions.
But voters in the early primary states can't be bothered. In New Hampshire, on the day the story broke in the Boston Globe, McCain wasn't asked a single question about it by somebody without a press pass. Same thing on scandal days II and III in South Carolina--no questions. "Not one," the candidate says.
Still, George W. Bush's campaign is clearly delighted, because the issue has caused McCain to lose his stride. "It becomes a major distraction for him when he's got to focus on something else," says Warren Tompkins, Bush's South Carolina adviser. One reason for this delight is the corrosive effect the letter-writing matter will have on McCain as he tries to make campaign-finance reform the centerpiece of his campaign.
The McCain folks are optimistic the scandal has a short half-life. But the damage to McCain is not in the letter-writing scandal itself; it's in the lost time and momentum it will cost McCain on the campaign trail, and the tarnish to his image as a political reformer. "They didn't have the kind of week they wanted to have at this point," says Ari Fleisher, a Bush spokesman. As if to underscore the point, a page comes across Fleisher's pager a moment later: It's an Associated Press story with a new development in the McCain imbroglio.
Carroll A. Campbell Jr., the former South Carolina governor and a Bush backer, thinks the questions will continue to dog McCain here. "I think he's going to have to dig himself out of it," Campbell says. But the voters don't much care? "No," Campbell agrees, "but the elites will be interested, and they'll make an issue out of it."
On the McCain bus this morning, the candidate is in good spirits, joking with reporters about the poor facilities at the previous night's debate, teasing his aides, and offering his political forecasts. But a reporter asks the inevitable question about McCain's letters, and suddenly the CNN camera is on and the reporters are scribbling.
McCain's response to reporters' queries on the matter is, by now, well rehearsed. He notes that the practice is quite common, and that he holds himself to a higher standard than others in the demands he's willing to make of an agency. He makes no apology for spurring the FCC, "the most obtuse of all bureaucracies," to action. "I've weighed in with the FCC to try to get the bureaucracy to act," he says. "When I've taken sides, it's always been on the side of the consumer."