McCain vs. Bradley: The Battle For The Independent Voter

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

To hear the media tell it, the presidential tussle underway in New Hampshire is defined by two battles: Texas Gov. George W. Bush vs. Sen. John McCain for the Republican nomination, and Vice President Al Gore vs. former Sen. Bill Bradley for the Democratic nod.

But with the primary only four days away and both McCain and Bradley trying to muster upsets of their parties’ establishment favorites, there also seems to be a third, albeit unofficial, contest: the one between the two anti-establishment candidates for the state’s independent voters. “Bradley represents [the anti-establishment vote] in the Democratic Party, and McCain represents that in the Republican Party,” GOP state Rep. Stephen Avery, a McCain backer, said two weeks ago of the battle in New Hampshire.

The stakes in the undeclared contest are high. New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardiner said some 37 percent of the state’s voters are independents, and they can register with either party, and as late as Election Day, in order to vote in the primary.

“Independents go where the action is,” Tom Rath, a leading New Hampshire Republican and adviser to Bush’s campaign, told a group of editorial writers Jan. 13. “They will go where they believe they can make a difference.” And this year, political observers in the state say, many of them are likely to go to the ballot slot marked McCain or Bradley.

The appeal of those two candidates to independent voters can be explained in two words: campaign finance. Both have built their candidacies in large part on their desire to reform the campaign-finance system and curtail the influence of special interests within government. They reinforced their common ground in mid-December by jointly declaring in Claremont, N.H., that if nominated by their parties to seek the presidency, their campaigns would not accept so-called soft money.

“The others act like robots. They’re typical politicians,” GOP state Rep. Norma Sabella said when contrasting McCain and Bradley to the rest of the presidential field. “With these two, what you see is what you get.”

Mo Elleithee, Bradley’s New Hampshire press secretary, acknowledged that McCain and Bradley share a desire to overhaul campaign-finance rules. “But,” he added, “they differ on so many issues that we don’t think there’s a competition for the independent voters.” Bradley himself reinforced that message in a Jan. 21 interview with a CBS correspondent. “I respect John a lot,” he said. “But I don’t think we are competing for the same voters.”


The Great Slavery Debates

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

Vice President Al Gore surprised his Democratic presidential contender, former Sen. Bill Bradley, with an unconventional campaign proposal Dec. 19 when the two made a joint appearance on “Meet the Press.” Rather than sell ourselves and our ideas for America to voters through 30-second soundbites, Gore asked Bradley, why don’t we vow to debate each other twice a week and drop all radio and television advertising?

Bradley, then a surging underdog rather than a humbled loser in the Iowa caucuses, refused to take the bait. He smugly rejected Gore’s invitation as a ploy. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel was among those to agree with Bradley. In a Dec. 21 editorial, it called Gore’s proposal a “transparent effort to embarrass Bradley” that “rang hollow” and “portrayed the vice president as borderline desperate.”

Bradley and the Journal-Sentinel’s editorial board may be right. But Gore’s proposal raises some good questions: Are regular and frequent campaign debates a good way for voters to get to know their candidates. Or are they, in our telegenic era, just another forum for candidates to vogue for the cameras, posture to the people and attack their opponents?

A look at our nation’s most famous debates, the clashes over slavery between Sen. Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln just before the Civil War, may provide some answers.

Two men with a past
Douglas and Lincoln were anything but strangers when they trekked across Illinois for their seven official debates in that state’s 1858 Senate campaign. The two had known each other for nearly a quarter-century by then and had been political and personal foes for years.

Douglas lost his first House bid (in 1838) by 36 votes to Lincoln’s law partner, John Todd Stuart. Lincoln also condemned a law that enlarged the Illinois Supreme Court — a law that, as a lobbyist, Douglas helped enact, and that led to his appointment as a judge on the court in 1841. Douglas and Lincoln even competed for the affections of the same woman: Mary Todd, whom Lincoln eventually married.

Philosophically, the two battled repeatedly on the hottest political issues of their day: the pros and cons of territorial expansion, the rightness of the Mexican War and, most importantly, slavery. Douglas was a rabid expansionist, and his appointment as chairman of the Senate Territories Committee thrust him not only into the center of that debate but also the debate on whether slavery would expand as the nation’s borders did.

Two Images Of John McCain

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

Campaign 2000 has produced two images of Sen. John McCain, who now leads Texas Gov. George W. Bush in polling for New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation GOP presidential primary Feb. 1.

The first — and the one most widely disseminated by the national media thus far mostly enamored of McCain — is flattering to say the least. It conveys exactly the image McCain wants to send to the electorate: an honorable man who bravely endured the rigors of a Vietnam war prison, a maverick politician beholden neither to special interests nor to his own Republican Party, and a straight talker whose principles do not change to reflect the latest public-opinion polls.

The second image, perhaps best illustrated by the Arizona Republic, is far less becoming. The Republic endorsed McCain in his three Senate bids — even in 1992, after he had been tainted by the Keating Five savings-and-loan scandal — yet it bluntly questioned his fitness for the presidency in an Oct. 31 editorial titled “Does McCain Have Presidential Mettle?”

The editorial did not laud McCain for his campaign candor but rather characterized his typical remark as being “unfounded, sarcastic and condescending.” And it counseled voters outside Arizona to think twice about choosing McCain as the leader of the free world. “There is … reason to seriously question whether McCain has the temperament, and the political approach and skills, we want in the next president of the United States,” the editorial said.

Mixed reviews from voters
So which snapshot is the most telling? Is McCain’s war record reason enough to elect him as commander in chief? Is McCain a hothead who is incapable of leading the nation and, by nature of the United States’ status as the sole superpower, the world? Is his temper evidence of an admirable passion and commitment to principle that makes a good president? Would his political independence serve him well as president or prove to be a liability within his own party?

The answers from the campaign trail are mixed. McCain’s town-hall meetings in New Hampshire, about 90 of them at last count, and his forthrightness in answering questions have put him in the lead there in polls running up to the Republican primary, but that popularity does not seem to carry over nationally. A poll this week pegged McCain’s standing nationally at only 17 percent, compared with 68 percent for Bush. Clearly, much of the public right now believes that Bush would make a better president.


CC2K: Engaging the Next Political Generation

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

MANCHESTER, N.H., Jan. 17 — Four years ago, Michael Biundo and Roger Wilkins tried to change the political world the old-fashioned way. They joined the New Hampshire campaign of then-Republican presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan and rejoiced as their man scored an upset in the race, besting eventual GOP nominee Bob Dole by slightly more than 2,000 votes.

Buchanan is in the presidential race this year, too, as a candidate for the Reform Party (after bolting the GOP late last year). But Biundo and Wilkins long ago decided to follow a different path in their quest to improve the political system come Campaign 2000.

Rather than dedicate themselves to one candidate, they chose to invest their time in recruiting the next generation of voters to a direct role in American democracy. “We decided this might be the last time New Hampshire has the first-in-the-nation primary,” Biundo said, “so why don’t we do something a little bit different, a little bit bigger.”

The end result: College Convention 2000 (CC2K for short), a three-day national convention for college and high-school students held at the Holiday Inn here Jan. 13-15 — about three weeks before New Hampshire’s Feb. 1 primary.

Taking the debate to ‘hostile territory’
Biundo’s Nashua, N.H., marketing firm, Atlantic Strategies Group, donated about $15,000 toward the event, which as of Jan. 14 had attracted a little more than 1,000 students from all 50 states, about 150 colleges and 50 different high schools. Organizers also raised money by selling ads in programs and table space at the convention.

The biggest sponsors — Planned Parenthood, the American Life League and the National Rifle Association — paid $5,000 each to fund the program. The convention cost more than $100,000, but organizers raised more than $200,000 in part to sponsor student “delegates” who could not afford to attend on their own or whose schools did not help pay the way.

The event attracted several presidential candidates, including Republican Sen. John McCain (AZ), who leads Texas Gov. George W. Bush in New Hampshire primary polling. Panelists from activist groups debated hot-button topics like gun control, abortion, trade, drug policy and campaign finance.

“If we accomplish one goal,” Stephen King, a representative for the NRA and Gun Owners of New Hampshire, said before he was to participate in a panel on gun control, “it will be getting young people to consider this issue seriously. The name of the game is to get them thinking. I’d like to get them to explore.”

Bond Time For Bush?

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

CONCORD, N.H., Jan. 13 — Face time with voters is a key element of any successful political campaign, and that is especially true here. New Hampshire voters, whose political motto is “always first, always right,” demand the attention of would-be presidents early and often.

Just ask Lamar Alexander, who quickly organized two free lobster feasts soon after he failed to win the 1996 Republican presidential nomination and began laying the groundwork for a now-defunct 2000 bid. Or ask former Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., or Republican Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the one-time underdogs of this year’s campaign who now lead in public-opinion polls. Bradley has held some 50 town-hall meetings in New Hampshire and McCain’s total stands at about 80.

Meet-and-greet sessions often hold more sway with voters than the candidates’ policy views. “We pick people not so much because of the issues,” says former Gov. Hugh Gregg, a chief architect of New Hampshire’s high-profile primary, “as we do because we have the chance to size these people up personally. … If we don’t bond to a candidate, we’re not going to vote for him.”

How many visits does it take to make a president?
That mindset might help explain the front-page story in today’s Concord Monitor, one of the state’s most influential newspapers, and the visceral reaction it sparked in the GOP campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

The story all but labeled Bush a candidate absent without leave from the New Hampshire electorate and McCain as the Republican who cares enough to visit the state’s voters regularly. “Bush’s absence from the state and the notion he is taking the vote here for granted,” it said, “has been the target of criticism from within and without the campaign, particularly in light of McCain’s near-constant presence.”

The reaction from the Bush camp: “I thought the article was inaccurate, inappropriate and wrong,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the former governor’s son and the chief strategist of Bush’s New Hampshire campaign. “He’s been here a lot. He’s seen a lot of people.”

The article so angered Tom Rath, another leading Bush adviser, that he called to scold the paper’s editor, Mike Pride. And in a meeting this evening with a delegation of editorial writers in the state this week, Rath said Bush has spent less time in New Hampshire than McCain because he, unlike McCain, is campaigning in Iowa, which holds its caucuses a week before New Hampshire’s primary.

One Vote At A Time

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

CONCORD, N.H., Jan. 12 — Conventional wisdom today says the American voter is disengaged and cynical. Jaded by scandals and broken promises, Americans have abandoned the political process, perhaps never to return. If you want to see the evidence, look no further than the continued decrease in voter turnout throughout the 1990s.

But come winter in New Hampshire in a presidential election year, you can forget conventional wisdom. The people here distrust politicians as much as any American, but their mindset is different, especially when all eyes are focused on them for the first-in-the-nation primary. Rather than abandon the process, they stay engaged, convinced that they can change the system for the better.

Dewey Olds, who still remembers the anticipation of his first chance to vote in the 1960 presidential election, said it best after a town hall meeting with Republican presidential contender John McCain in Dublin today: “We believe that one vote means something.”

The home of retail politicking
New Hampshire does have its share of cynics. Take the waitress at a Mexican restaurant in downtown Concord. Asked which candidate in the Feb. 1 primary she favored, she instinctively said “none of the above.” Then there is the clerk at the New England College bookstore in Henniker, who believes that all politicians lie and abuse the political system.

The difference between New Hampshire and the rest of the country, though, is that even the most disgusted voters are more likely to cast their ballots come Election Day. The waitress may hate her choice. But she also may vote for billionaire Donald Trump, a potential Reform Party candidate, just to make a statement.

And the bookstore clerk is a long-time Al Gore supporter in large part because he knows how to play the political game. He may disappoint her periodically once elected, but at times he will govern well, too, she says.

The enthusiasm for the political process in one of the last bastions of retail politicking is palpable. You can see the genuine interest at events like the one McCain threw in Dublin, a town of about 1,600 that packed an estimated 700 people into the Whitney Gymnasium for the first visit by a presidential contender in recent memory.

Tax Cuts The ‘Defining Issue’ In New Hampshire

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

CONCORD, N.H., Jan. 11 — Politics can be so predictable sometimes. Take, for instance, the Republican presidential campaign in this first-of-the-nation primary. Months of campaigning, millions of dollars and thousands of handshakes after the start of the campaign here, and the GOP battle has come down to the most familiar of Republican issues: tax cuts.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., vaulted tax policy to the top of the Republican agenda here yesterday with a speech pitching tax cuts of $240 billion over five years and subtly criticizing the tax plans of two leading rivals, frontrunner and Texas Gov. George W. Bush and publishing magnate Steve Forbes. By day’s end, tax cuts had become the consensus “defining issue” for the final weeks of the GOP race that ends Feb. 1.

‘The New Hampshire way’
Tax cuts long have been a core Republican issue and a chief concern among New Hampshire voters in particular, a fact Bush acknowledges in a campaign television commercial that says “the New Hampshire way is to cut taxes.” A television reporter emphasized the point yesterday after McCain’s speech. “Taxes are an issue in New Hampshire every day, every week,” WBZ4 television reporter John Henning said.

But the issue has become more significant this week, with McCain and Forbes criticizing Bush’s $483 billion tax-cut plan in a Michigan debate Monday and then McCain unveiling the details of his plan just weeks before the New Hampshire voting. Asked by a reporter why he had waited until now to pitch his plan to voters, McCain said he considered it “the appropriate time.”

In an earlier debate, Bush did his part to elevate the tax debate when he promised “tax cuts, so help me God” if elected president, and McCain yesterday made a no-new-taxes pledge of his own. Emphasizing that he has “never voted for a tax increase in 17 years” of Senate service, McCain said, “I pledge not to raise taxes. I’ve pledged it all of my political career.”

The thrust of McCain’s latest campaign proposal, which he calls the “21st Century Family Security Plan,” is twofold. It seeks both to offer tax cuts to working families who earn up to $70,000 and to reserve both the surplus in the Social Security trust fund and 62% of the non-Social Security budget surplus for keeping the federal retirement system solvent beyond 2014. Another 23 percent of the surplus would cover the tax cuts; 10 percent would go toward Medicare; and 5 percent would be used to pay down the national debt.

The tax portion of the proposal would, among other things, add more Americans to the lowest 15% tax bracket, eliminate the “marriage penalty” that requires couples who marry to pay more in taxes than if they had remained single and paid taxes separately, and increase the child-tax credit from $500 to $1,000.