The Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT)   Sunday, February 27, 2000

McCain And Bradley

Last fall, Connecticut's Republican and Democratic kingmakers anointed George W. Bush and Al Gore as their respective presidential candidates. On March 7, voters registered in either major party will have their say. The Courant recommends that they send the bosses a strong message: No to Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore. Yes to John McCain and Bill Bradley.

The Republicans

Mr. Bush has had a passable record as governor of Texas. But his performance to date as a candidate for national office has been less than OK. His recent makeover from a compassionate conservative to a right-wing supplicant and ``reformer'' has been astonishingly clumsy.

A reformer doesn't turn a deaf ear to campaign finance reform and gorge himself with cash from special interests. A compassionate conservative doesn't ignore universal health care and Social Security and Medicare solvency. Neither would he launch a new phase of his campaign at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, where the climate for racial bigotry and homophobia is hospitable.

Mr. Bush has shown a tendency to smother his rhetoric with qualifiers, technicalities and ambiguities, much as the president whom he vehemently criticizes, Bill Clinton.

Mr. Bush will have to do a lot better to earn the support of Connecticut's independent-minded and moderate voters if he survives the primaries and becomes the Republican standard-bearer.

The party's best hope for a November win is Mr. McCain, whose rise on the national scene has been extraordinary. Not since Ronald Reagan has a conservative Republican appealed to so many unaffiliated voters and moderate Democrats.

What's attracting people to Mr. McCain is not his right-of-center record as a senator from Arizona. The appeal lies in the story of a prisoner of war who triumphs against impossible odds and demonstrates qualities of leadership - courage, integrity and trustworthiness - that transcend ideology.

Mr. McCain has displeased conservative Republicans because of his adamant opposition to the corrupt system of campaign financing and his refusal to support irresponsibly huge tax cuts that are sure to result in budget deficits. He proposes modest cuts, targeted mostly at the poorest taxpayers. He would use much of the federal budget surplus to stabilize Social Security and Medicare and to pay down the national debt.

Mr. McCain has been the only Republican candidate with any semblance of a health care plan. (He would reduce the number of uninsured Americans through various means, including subsidies for purchasing insurance.) He supports laws to allow patients to sue their health maintenance organization.

Mr. McCain, who models himself after the populist Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, says he would take on both the robber barons and union bosses and would not put tax cuts ahead of social programs.

All of that distinguishes Mr. McCain from Mr. Bush. It has made the senator appealing to a wider spectrum of people than those who dwell under the GOP umbrella nowadays.

For those Connecticut Republicans who want the strongest candidate in the November election, Mr. McCain makes a lot more sense than Mr. Bush.

The Democrats

Unlike McCain vs. Bush, the choice here is not as clear. Both Mr. Bradley and Mr. Gore are on similar philosophical wavelengths. They differ only in degree, not substance, on taxes, education, the environment, gun control, abortion, health care and campaign finance reform. Both have good leadership qualities and rich experience in public service at the national level, although neither stands out at this stage as a particularly inspiring figure.

Mr. Bradley has an important advantage. He, like Mr. McCain, is challenging the establishment where it should be challenged. To Mr. Bradley, curbing special interests is a priority, as is fighting child poverty and taking big steps forward to ensure adequate health care for all Americans. The former senator from New Jersey would ban soft money and political action committees, offer free broadcast advertisements to candidates and publicly finance campaigns for federal office.

Mr. Bradley's pledge to end the auctioning of politicians to the highest bidders has more resonance than Mr. Gore's ho-hum support for reform.

During almost two decades as a senator, Mr.Bradley established himself as a leader willing to challenge the ideologues on the right and left. He became a key player on fiscal policy and a politician of national stature.

The Bradley campaign has yet to catch thepublic's imagination. Those who want him to succeed say he has been too cerebral and too reluctant to match the attack-dog tactics that Mr. Gore has used against him. But if that's the worst thing that could be said about Mr. Bradley - that he is too smart and too decent - he's doing just fine.

No one has accused the former Rhodes Scholar and professional basketball player of shaving the truth, lacking original thoughts on public policy or coming up short on integrity. No one has associated him with the seedy side of politics.

As for Mr. Gore, he, too, has had a distinguished record, although not without blemish. When he was a member of Congress from Tennessee, he voted for bills to restrict abortion rights, and against efforts to toughen gun control regulation and curb tobacco subsidies. Yet early in this presidential campaign, Mr. Gore insisted that he has always supported choice and gun control and fought the tobacco lobby. Not so.

As vice president, Mr. Gore was a key player in the Clinton administration's 1996 campaign fund-raising shenanigans, especially the shameful shakedown of Asian Americans at a Buddhist temple.

Mr. Gore's tendency to exaggerate has provided rich material for comedians. He has taken credit for inventing the Internet, uncovering the Love Canal environmental scandal and being (with his wife, Tipper) the model for Erich Segal's bestselling novel, ``Love Story.''

More disturbing has been Mr. Gore's demagogic attacks on Mr. Bradley, falsely accusing him, for example, of wanting to kill Medicaid and leave racial minorities without health coverage.

Mr. Bradley isn't burdened with such embarrassing baggage.

It's Connecticut's Turn

The odds against both Mr. McCain and Mr.Bradley are formidable. Their respective parties' high priests are preaching and prancing for Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore. But the primaries in New Hampshire and Michigan have defied conventional wisdom. Polls in other states are showing that the anointed candidates are not the ones necessarily crowned by the parties' voters.

The exceptionally high voter turnout and crossover allegiances in the five states that have already had primaries suggest that politics, like the economy, is entering a new era.

Voting for Mr. McCain and Mr. Bradley in the March 7 primary would send an unmistakable message to the Republican and Democratic establishment: Connecticut wants to be part of that new day when the rank and file, not the bosses and their special-interest benefactors, get to choose who runs for president.

Voters who are already registered as unaffiliated may change to Republican or Democrat until March 6, one day before the primary.

Reprinted by Permission of The Hartford Courant.  Copyright 2000.  All Rights Reserved.