San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, CA)   Wednesday, February 23, 2000

McCain: the real McCoy

John McCain has excited American voters who long for a leader and a political process they can believe in.  He speaks with candor and conviction.  His life story is compelling, his manner charismatic.  To a public weary of politics manipulated by money and artifice, he promises reform.

Many voters sense in him the real deal.  We do, too.  We recommend him as the best choice for president in the March 7 Republican primary -- an endorsement made with enthusiasm, but not without reservations.  We disagree strongly with McCain on many issues.  In 18 years in Congress, he has voted consistently with his party's conservative wing.  Tight on social spending, bellicose on foreign policy, anti-abortion and an opponent of gun control, he has shown little interest in education legislation or health care reform.

But we also recognize in McCain a potential to liberate the Republican Party from the narrow interests that have alienated many voters, especially in California.

His championing of campaign finance reform is drawing support from moderates and even liberals who see it as a defining issue.  His bluntness in challenging the tobacco industry and wasteful projects dear to his colleagues is attracting independents.  His call to use most of the budget surplus to lower the national debt, instead of dissipating it on big tax cuts, shows fiscal prudence -- a Republican virtue that his opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, has abandoned.

McCain defied odds by entering the race, demonstrated the grit and energy of a good campaigner and, with his stunning win in New Hampshire, showed he could attract non-Republicans as well as loyalists.

Even though he did not manage the same feat in South Carolina, Republican leaders would do well to view McCain as a potent challenger to Vice President Al Gore, the likely Democratic nominee.  They should embrace his Reaganesque ability to expand the party's reach.

Instead, many feel threatened by his campaign finance reforms.  They lined up early behind Bush, seeing him as a brand name and the nomination as a market they could corner with money and endorsements.

The strategy scared away others -- but not McCain.  And in showing his own strengths as a candidate, McCain has exposed Bush's weaknesses: the gaps in his knowledge, the thinness of his thinking.

It's not that the 53-year-old eldest son of George Bush cannot point to accomplishments.  A second-term governor in the nation's second largest state, Bush persuaded a largely Democratic legislature to pass an education package that has put the state on the road to reform.  He reached out to improve relations with Mexico and worked to make Texas more inclusive and welcoming to Latinos and other minorities.

Personable and likable, Bush has good political skills.  He also has good advisers; the Hoover Institution at Stanford would be well represented in a Bush cabinet.

But except for being a pretty good governor and the son of a famous father, Bush has the resume of a lightweight.  In a carefully scripted campaign, he has not made a good case for himself or his principal ideas, an ill-conceived tax cut and a vague social policy he euphemistically calls ''compassionate conservatism.''

McCain is more mature and prepared for the presidency.  He is ready to lead.

But he too has flaws.  His independence and outspokenness are double-edged.  A suffer-no-fools temperament, evident in his aggressive concession speech in South Carolina, has created needless enemies and could hamper his effectiveness and persuasiveness, were he elected.  His spontaneity is appealing, but his tendency to pop off is not, as evidenced by his insisting on calling his North Vietnamese captors and torturers ''gooks,'' thereby offending Asian-Americans.

Some of McCain's maverick stands have been erratic, making it hard to predict how he'll vote.  On issues dear to Silicon Valley, and on business matters generally, he's veered between traditional conservative distrust of regulation and populist disdain for big business.

His inconsistency may partly explain why so many Republican executives from Silicon Valley have lined up with Bush, even though McCain is chairman of the Senate's Commerce Committee, which oversees issues vital to high tech.  One example: Although he sponsored a bill last year to curb Y2K lawsuits, in 1995 he voted against legislation limiting frivolous shareholder suits -- a defining issue in the Valley.

Ironically, McCain has harnessed high tech better than Bush as a campaign tool, using the Internet to raise millions of dollars.

McCain and Bush are like-minded conservatives; the ideological differences between them are not deep.  So far in the primaries, however, Bush has moved to the right, to capture anti-abortion activists and the religious right, while McCain has signaled moderation, which should play well in Michigan and California.  He has begun to talk about his concern over wage stagnation among the working poor.  He'd amend the Republican platform to permit abortions in instances of rape and incest.

While McCain's views seem to be evolving, his priorities are clear: restoring faith in the White House and reducing the power of money in politics.

To win the White House, the Republicans need to reach out to a broad spectrum of America.  John McCain would do that.

Reprinted by Permission of the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, CA).  Copyright 2000.  All Rights Reserved.