Wednesday, March 01, 2000

As McCain shines, GOP looks away




BY PATRICK CROWLEY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Last Saturday night something remarkable happened in our area. Thousands of people in Cincinnati lined up and waited for hours — first at a Norwood book store and then at Lunken Airport — to see, hear and possibly meet a politician.

        That's right, a politician. Not Ken Griffey Jr. or Kid Rock. But somebody running for office.

        This just doesn't happen all that often. Most political events are chocked full of people who have paid to be there or, because of their ties to party leaders,, must be there.

        But John McCain is different.

        The prickly Arizona senator has captured the attention of the nation's electorate. His maverick style, his easy accessibility, his anti-establishment message and his war hero story are like everything else in politics — some truth, a lot of hype. But they are all working together to give him a good chance at the Republican nomination for president.

        People are paying attention. They are excited by the Republican candidate who has the guts to take on the Christian Right influences in the GOP, who stands up to the big money donors in politics with his calls for campaign finance reform, and who doesn't cower in the face of pressure from supporters of the Anointed One, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

        It's not a campaign. It's a movement.

        But the brightest hope that Mr. McCain brings Republicans is his appeal to moderate voters, especially the Reagan Democrats who fled the GOP for the more mainstream, middle-of-the road message from President Bill Clinton.

        Now, if somebody could just give Northern Kentucky Republican leaders a clue about Mr. McCain, maybe the party that likes to listen to its press about political power and dominance in the region could actually pick a winner when it comes to the White House.

        Because at the same time Mr. McCain was building his momentum in Cincinnati Saturday night, something quite unremarkable was taking place just a few miles away in Fort Mitchell.

        Northern Kentucky's leading Republican party leaders, elected officials and political activists were hunkered down for their annual 4th District Lincoln/Reagan Day Dinner.

        Aside from a visit from Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson, this was the same-old, same-old from the GOP crowd.

        A speech from U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning that was more lecture than oratory. Moaning about the press. Bashing the Democrats. Whining about Bill Clinton. Defending — if you can believe this — Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America.

        And of course, loud applause when Mr. Bunning mentioned he was for George W. Bush.

        It was the GOP's establishment that hand-picked Mr. Bush as the candidate best suited to win the party's nomination. But after watching Mr. Bush perform on the campaign trail, you have to ask why.

        The man who was supposed to have the nomination wrapped up by now has already spent more than $50 million, and he has Mr. McCain breathing down his neck.

        Mr. Bush has emerged a distorted combination of his father, lackluster politician and former president George Bush; Bob Dole, the failed 1996 presidential candidate and the ultimate GOP insider; and Dan Quayle, considered by many the mental midget of the Republican Party.

        That's not a candidate. It's a three-headed political science experiment gone terribly wrong.

        Mr. Bush probably will win the party's nomination. But so what? The Republicans aren't going to win the White House with just Republican votes, a lesson the party apparently failed to learn in 1992 and 1996.

        Meanwhile, Mr. McCain continues to rise in polls while Mr. Bush fades. Will Northern Kentucky Republicans wake up and realize that it is Mr. McCain and not Mr. Bush who appears in a better position to beat Democrat Al Gore in November?

        Probably not. But at least they'll have something to talk about at next year's dinner.

        Patrick Crowley covers Kentucky politics for The Kentucky Enquirer. His column now appears Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 578-5581, or (502) 875-7526 in Frankfort, or by e-mail at crowleys@cinci.infi.net.