McCain's Dilemma (posted February 20, 2000)

George W. Bush's convincing 53 to 42 percent victory in South Carolina over John McCain creates a serious dilemma for the Arizona Senator. Given Bush's superior financial resources and organizational support among the party establishment, McCain had to win South Carolina in order to maintain the momentum that has propelled his candidacy and attracted favorable media coverage. McCain's loss weakens his claim that he is a stronger candidate who would run better than Bush in the general election.

Part of McCain's problem was a strategic box into which he put himself in this campaign. Much of his allure stems from his reformer credentials willing to rise above conventional politics. By embracing campaign finance reform and being willing to support tough anti-tobacco legislation, McCain positioned himself as an outsider willing to speak up on behalf of ordinary citizens.

The difficulty for the Arizona Senator arose when in the week before the South Carolina primary, Bush launched a devastating series of television ads, direct mail pieces, and phone calls attacking McCain's conservatism and party loyalty. McCain vacillated between being a fighter who said he would punch back if attacked and a reformer who was above politics. In the end, McCain chose to run mostly positive television ads in the last week because when he went on the attack and said Bush was no better than Clinton in terms of morality, the Arizona Senator came across as just another politician who employed attack ads. The reformer image weakened his ability to defend himself from the Bush assault and allowed Bush to control the discussion. Post-election exit polls in South Carolina revealed how effective Bush's strategy was. More than half of voters in the end thought McCain was a hypocrite who said one thing on reform, but did another.