The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)   Saturday, February 19, 2000

Keep GOP choice alive with victory for McCain

    More than any time in modern history, there is a national perception that South Carolina voters today will decide not only who will win the Republican nomination, but perhaps the presidency of the United States.  That's why we are deviating from our general policy of staying out of primary contests.  We want to see John McCain remain very much in the race.

    Until New Hampshire, the conventional wisdom was that the Republican nomination all but belonged to Texas Gov. George W. Bush.  But the McCain upset has set off a remarkable and telling reaction to the Arizona senator's candidacy.  In this state, the polls say that within a few short weeks, Gov. Bush has gone from the hands-down favorite to a candidate struggling to survive.

    A victory by Sen. McCain today would make the remainder of the primaries around the country the kind of testing ground for the nation's highest office that they were designed to be.

    A loss would reinforce the notion that New Hampshire was, well, New Hampshire, and that Gov. Bush has the money and party establishment it takes to win the nomination.

    Such pundits as The Washington Post's David Broder, for example, believe that a McCain triumph here today would make additional victories in Arizona and Michigan next week a virtual certainty, despite Gov. Bush's strong establishment support in those states, including the backing of their GOP governors.  And those wins, according to the Broder theory, would make it even more possible that Sen. McCain could do well in the major March 7 primaries where Gov. Bush has the support of five GOP governors.

    We don't believe Sen. McCain would bow out if he doesn't win here today, but the fact is that only a victory would increase the chances of this being a fight to the finish.  And that's what the Republicans, and the Democrats for that matter, should be looking for from their primaries.  It is to be the parties' and the nation's great benefit to have the best and the brightest to choose from in November.

    Certainly, John McCain offers real leadership and character to a nation that has for more than seven years endured a presidency steered by polls and focus groups, and a chief executive whose own absence of character has weakened the public's faith in the office.  And Sen. McCain's appeal reaches beyond party lines.  Today there are voters who identify themselves as "McCain Democrats."

    Sen. McCain's valiant record in the Vietnam War, his long conservative record on Capitol Hill and his capacity to inspire, as seen during this primary campaign, show what America can expect if he were elected president.

    Sen. McCain has shown that he is willing to stand on principle in his two-plus terms in the Senate, even if it means bucking his party's leadership, as he has on campaign finance reform.  But his voting record largely reflects the conservative values -- support for a strong defense, reduced federal spending and a balanced budget -- that animated his political mentor, President Ronald Reagan.

    As columnist Paul Greenberg noted this week on our Commentary page, the unexpected national response to the McCain candidacy reflects an urge toward patriotism that has been submerged during these tawdry Clinton years.  Sen. McCain's message represents "something beyond self, beyond party, beyond the usual calculation."

    It is an inclusive message that has resonated broadly, despite the limited resources that the senator has been able to bring to bear in the campaign.  South Carolina voters should sustain John McCain's shoestring campaign with a victory today to ensue that this race doesn't end before it has hardly begun.

Reprinted by Permission of The Post and Courier.  All Rights Reserved.