Mccain Moves Up, Up There

A published list of prudential maxims (e.g., "Never give your wife an anniversary gift that needs to be plugged in"; "Never order barbecue in a place where all the chairs match"; "Never buy a Rolex from someone out of breath") could have included this one: Never extrapolate February politics from November polls.

John McCain, uppermost underdog in the competition to deny George W. Bush the Republican nomination, is doing well in one of the places where he must do well or go home--New Hampshire. However, a McCain surge right about now was almost as predictable as autumn itself, for several reasons. One is that this is how the system is supposed to work.

The improvised and constantly evolving nomination process is the haphazard result of largely uncoordinated decisions by the states and parties. But because the process begins in two states like Iowa and New Hampshire, both small but in many other ways dissimilar, a candidate with limited resources (of money, national reputation and supporters) can concentrate those resources. Plowing and replowing the same ground, he can hope for a breakthrough that will have a continental echo.

Skillfully and tenaciously, McCain is making the most of the New Hampshire opportunity (Feb. 1), and he may yet decide to give Iowa (Jan. 24) a try after all. He can hope for a big echo from doing well early because the media are his principal political asset--almost his political base.

Americans are witnessing something unprecedented. They live, increasingly, in a journalism-besotted age, with saturation coverage of politics, around the clock, on proliferating electronic outlets. And for the first time in memory the media are smitten with a Republican. Their altogether requited love affair with McCain is understandable.

After seven years of slumming with the Clintons, the media, like the larger public, know that character counts, and so biography should rank with ideology as a key to judging a candidate. McCain's biography is riveting, indeed noble--and a best seller. Regarding ideology, two of his recent preoccupations, tobacco and campaign-finance reform, touch two of the media's erogenous zones. And he brings to politics a fighter pilot's pugnacity and a Westerner's openness, which make him unlike run-of-the-mill risk-averse candidates. He is grand company for journalists between stops of his campaign bus, and as Bismarck said, you can do anything with children if you will play with them.

Furthermore, the media need a narrative thread the way other organisms need oxygen. For a year Bush has been portrayed as Goliath. The question was: Who could be cast as David? Now the question is: Can McCain's slingshot bring down Bush?

People in the Bush campaign have studied what they are trying to make: political history. They note that since 1959-1960, the first presidential cycle during which there were reliable prenomination polls, every Republican candidate for his party's nomination who has achieved a lead of 10 points nationally in the Gallup poll has won. Bush's national lead, which has been remarkably stable, is still more than 50 points. Furthermore, it is normal for leading candidates to hit bumps on the road to the nomination: remember Reagan losing in the 1980 Iowa caucuses.

Since 1976, the average margin of victory for Republican presidential candidates in their home states' primaries has been 70 points--for Democrats, 75 points. Today some polls in Arizona show McCain slightly ahead, some show Bush slightly ahead. Bush will strongly contest Arizona's Feb. 22 primary; he soon will be on the air there. McCain has to be favored to win it, but not by anything like 70 points.

But he must win New Hampshire, where there is a cloud on his horizon. Campaign laws of the sort he adores set limits on the amounts that candidates who accept federal matching funds can spend in particular states. In the past, many candidates, including some whose enthusiasm for campaign-spending restrictions approached that of McCain, have blithely blown past legal limits, knowing that the monetary fine--a cost preferable to losing--and negative publicity would come too late to matter. However, that scofflaw option is not open to Saint John, the patron saint of campaign-finance purity.

The spending limit for New Hampshire (Bush is exempt because he is not taking matching funds) will be approximately $661,200. The Bush campaign calculates that by next week McCain will have spent more than a third of that. If he is to abide by the limit, he must either slow his spending or take the risk of winding up running on fumes in the weeks immediately before the primary.

Will the love-struck media carefully track the trajectory of McCain's spending? It will be poetic justice if the limits that the government sets on political communication in particular states discombobulate McCain, whose wish list of reforms would mean a much more elaborate system of limits on political communication.

Like U. S. Grant saying in 1864 that he was prepared to fight it out along a given line if it took a summer, Bush is prepared to fight it out if it takes all spring. But the crucial date comes in late winter, March 7, with primaries in New York and California and lots of states in between. And on Feb. 22 there is Michigan, where, says the Bush campaign's historian-in-residence, Karl Rove, "We're as strong as an acre of garlic." Michigan has more convention delegates (58) than Iowa (25) and New Hampshire (17) combined.

But if the Bush campaign is studying history, it knows this prudential maxim: The only constant in life is change. So as a rule, any rule can become unreliable. That does not stop the regular search for regularity, as by the Bush campaign, but it gives hope to McCain.