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Showdown in South Carolina

February 18, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TRANSCRIPT

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I apologize for there not being room inside.

MARGARET WARNER: More than once, local fire marshals have had to shut people out of John McCain’s campaign events. Inside, hundreds wait, often for an hour or more, to hear the former POW (prisoner of war) speak.

McCAIN SUPPORTER: Wow. (Applause) are we giving a truck away? What’s the deal here? What a crowd.

MARGARET WARNER: They seem inspired by the Arizona senator’s vow to end the way Washington works.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: It’s a crusade that will give the government back to you. And that’s what this campaign is all about. (Applause) and I’m dead serious when I tell you that.

MARGARET WARNER: George W. Bush’s audiences also catch fire when he vows to bring a Republican back to the White House.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: People are going to nominate me, and I can stand up in Saturday night in South Carolina and say it is the beginning of the end of the Clinton era in Washington, D.C. (Applause)

MARGARET WARNER: Even the long-shot third contender in tomorrow’s presidential primary, talk-show host Alan Keyes, seems to light a spark. For South Carolinians, such intense voter interest in a primary in their state is, to say the least, unusual.

DAVID WOODARD: The South has historically been the lowest participating part of the whole country when it came to presidential elections. For much of its history it was one-party Democratic and only 8 to10 percent of the population even showed up for a presidential election. So it has a history of low participation, and South Carolina is part of that history.

MARGARET WARNER: The Republican Party’s revival, higher education levels and a booming new economy have started to change that picture. Still, in the last presidential election, only 38 percent of South Carolina’s voting-age population actually voted. But tomorrow’s Republican primary has electrified not just Republicans, but Independents and Democrats who also can take part. The outcome is crucial to both men.

McCAIN SUPPORTER: Let’s have a warm Furman University welcome for the next president of the United States, Senator John McCain.

MARGARET WARNER: It offers it offers McCain the chance to show his 19-point New Hampshire primary win wasn’t a fluke, and to help generate the momentum and cash he needs to sustain his insurgent campaign. The primary offers Bush the chance to revive his battered image as his party’s most electable candidate.

FORMER GOV. CARROLL CAMPBELL: It is a catalyst for him to move on, and to move on to Michigan and other places. And I think from that point on it is going to be a pretty good road to the White House.

MARGARET WARNER: And if he loses?

FORMER GOV. CAROLL CAMPBELL: If he loses? I think he’s going to be a great governor of Texas. But I’m not worried about that at all.

MARGARET WARNER: For 20 years Republican front-runners who lost Iowa or New Hampshire have counted on this state’s party establishment to deliver a victory here. Now Bush has that establishment support and wide appeal to fiscally conservative suburbanites and socially conservative Christians that are the core of the party here. Bush backer Lyman Whitehead, who has photos of Bush’s father, the former president, hanging in his house, says he didn’t really even look at McCain.

LYMAN WHITEHEAD: I have been a long time Bush supporter of the whole family, really.

EILEEN SAYLOR: I think that George Bush, his dad, was a very good president and I voted for him, and I think I will vote for this one, too.

MARGARET WARNER: Former Governor Campbell, who helped create the state’s modern-day Republican Party, says Bush’s easygoing charm also works for him.

FORMER GOV. CAROLL CAMPBELL: I think he fits very well. He is — he is a person that — one of those people that doesn’t meet strangers, and that is kind of southern.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: That’s some funky music there I hear.

McCAIN SUPPORTER: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: But McCain’s advisers here don’t think the party establishment calls the shots any longer.

REP. MARK SANFORD, McCain Adviser: I think the question is, what is the establishment? And if there is an establishment, is it as strong as it was 15 years ago? So, one, the idea of saying to a retiree on Hilton Head Island, ‘You’re going to vote with the Republican establishment,’ isn’t going to work. I mean, he’ll club you to death with a seven iron.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Sanford also thinks McCain is tapping into a very real South Carolina tradition.

REP. MARK SANFORD: Down here we’ve got forefathers that were firing cannons at the local federal battery. So, I mean, you — there is a consistent theme of independence in South Carolinians; it’s going back to the Civil War, going back to the Revolutionary War.

MARGARET WARNER: Retired Connecticut stockbroker Tom Hofstetter is one of the many new arrivals.

TOM HOFSTETTER: Well, I tell you, I think there’s a magic that’s happening here that’s quite different than the political machines want. And maybe it’s because it’s a magic that’s being produced by the voter, by the people. It’s coming from this audience here to the man, rather than from the man to us. It’s believability.

MARGARET WARNER: McCain’s odd coalition also takes in younger new residents, veterans, older voters, and disaffected working people, all responding to his persona and outsider message.

DAVID WOODARD: When he says things like, ‘I’m going to give the government back to you,’ that’s a populist message that connects all across the South. All the way back to Tom Watson and pitchfork Ben Tillman, all across the South, Huey Long, they were all giving the government back to the people, especially the people that have felt like they have been disenfranchised; they haven’t been part of the system; they’re not part of the Republican establishment. And here comes someone that’s going to let them in.

MARGARET WARNER: McCain’s inviting them all in.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: — to call your friends, call your neighbors, call the Democrats, call the independents, call the Libertarians, call the vegetarians. Call them all, get them out to vote. That is what it is all about — this crusade.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Aboard his Straight Talk Express, McCain argues that after losing the last two presidential and congressional elections, the Republican Party has to expand its base.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Reach out to as many people as you can who will be attracted to that core philosophy and belief. That’s what Ronald Reagan did so well. And although we Republicans hate to admit it, President Clinton was pretty good about that, too. And that is the secret to success in American politics. If you are only appealing to the Republican votes, then you are restricting yourself to 40 percent of the electorate. And so I am proud of the appeal we have to Independents and Democrats.

MARGARET WARNER: But these people have rarely if ever voted in a Republican primary here, so he’s working hard to motivate them.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: There is an iron triangle in Washington: It is lobbyists, big money and legislation. And that is the establishment. Who loses? You do. And that’s why we have to break the iron triangle that I am talking about.

MARGARET WARNER: Many voters are responding, but as much to McCain’s character as his issues. Salesman Joe Holdren’s an Independent who’s been so turned off by politics that he hasn’t voted recently, except for Ross Perot.

JOE HOLDREN: I’m looking for something a little bit different, a guy who can make a statement and stick by his guns will pretty much always have my support.

MARGARET WARNER: Tomorrow, Holdren says, he’s going to vote for McCain.

JOE HOLDREN: One comment that he made tonight was that, ‘At some point in time during my campaign, I’m going to say something that you really don’t like, but at least you won’t have to worry about it if it’s true or not. It’ll be the truth whether you like it or not.’

MARGARET WARNER: And you believe him?

JOE HOLDREN: Yes.

(Applause)

MARGARET WARNER: Bush, meanwhile, continues to tout his experience and classic Republican themes.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: What we Republicans understand is that the surplus in Washington, D.C., is not the government’s money. The surplus is the people’s money, and I intend to pass it back to the people who pay the bills.

MARGARET WARNER: To broaden his appeal, he’s also adopted McCain’s town- meeting style and his message of reform.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: If you are looking for a reformer, if you are interested in somebody coming from outside the system, somebody who has got a record of results as a result of strong reforms, come and join this campaign.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet Bush believes Americans want a realistic, not radical, approach to change.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: The senator has made great claims about how he is going to be in peoples’ face. Not his words, but mine. I don’t think you can lead by getting in people’s faces. I think you lead by convincing people.

MARGARET WARNER: Retired Navy Captain Donald Warthen prefers Bush’s approach to reform.

DONALD WARTHEN: I think that he is more moderate on it. I think that it’s a little radical what McCain wants to do. I don’t think it will get through. It’s good to have a great idea, but if you can’t get it through, it doesn’t do much good.

MARGARET WARNER: Bush concedes he had to take stock after his New Hampshire licking.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: If somebody doesn’t adjust or can’t learn, that person should probably not be the president. One of my strengths is that I am a good retail politician. I like people. So I said, ‘Let’s see if we can’t figure out a better way for me to show my compassion for people, my depth of issue, the energy I have.’

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think you’ve found your voice here?

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: Ask me on Sunday. (Laughs) I hope so.

(Cheers and applause)

MARGARET WARNER: The campaign, so cordial in New Hampshire, has turned negative here, primarily in an expensive barrage of ads, phone calls and mail.

ANNOUNCER: John McCain’s ad about Governor Bush’s tax plan isn’t true, and McCain knows it.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Governor Bush uses all of the surplus for tax cuts with not one new penny for Social Security or the debt. His ad twists the truth like Clinton.

MARGARET WARNER: McCain pulled those negative ads week ago and is ending on a positive note.

AD ANNOUNCER: A Republican like Ronald Reagan who can win.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I’m going to beat (Vice President) Al Gore like a drum.

MARGARET WARNER: He hoped Bush would do the same. But anti-McCain ads continue on the radio, questioning his character and conservatism.

ANNOUNCER: Who is John McCain? Just another Washington politician who says one thing but does another.

MARGARET WARNER: Though Bush’s attacks have hurt McCain, McCain’s attack ads were backfiring on him.

REP. MARK SANFORD: I think there’s an idealistic element that goes with the McCain campaign that says, ‘This is a man of character. He’s a man of integrity, we don’t want him to get into the elbowing match.’ So I think it’s great that he dropped even the responses. Unilateral disarmament is not a thing frequently tried in politics. It’s a very dangerous bet, but I think it was the right bet here in South Carolina.

MARGARET WARNER: McCain hopes Bush’s attacks will backfire, too. But mostly, he sounds liberated.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I feel so much better since we made that decision about the ad. I feel wonderful. I feel wonderful and happy. You’ve got to — you cannot be so afraid of losing that you are not going to be proud of the campaign you’re in.

MARGARET WARNER: All the final polls show Bush leading, thanks to Republicans and an unusually high number of Democrats and Independents who insist they’re going to vote but are still undecided. Turnout is expected to be heavy, but nobody’s sure exactly which voters will show up.