JIM LEHRER: That big one for the Republicans in South Carolina: There's a debate tonight, with the important primary vote on Saturday. Here to set the scene are David Broder of the Washington Post, Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times, and Lee Bandy of the State, a newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina.
David, your column today said -- and I paraphrase -- that Saturday's primary results could -- could -- decide this entire Republican nomination. Take us through the thesis.
DAVID BRODER: Well, it's setting up in a veryinteresting way. As you know, John McCain won a big victory over Governor Bush in their first head-to-head in New Hampshire on February 1.
So if McCain can win here, where the environment of conservative Republicans, strong religious group in the constituency and a massive campaign against him not only from George Bush and his own supporters but from the tobacco people, the anti-abortion people, the anti-tax people … If McCain can win here, then he has beaten Bush twice in very different environments, and the next round, Tuesday in Michigan and Arizona, set up very favorably for McCain.
On the other hand, if Bush can stop McCain here, then Bush has won three of the four first contests, beating McCain once, losing to him once and beating Steve Forbes twice, running Forbes out of the race. At that point, George Bush begins to look again like the strong favorite that he was at the beginning of the year.
JIM LEHRER: So suddenly, David, the 400,000 people who are going to vote on Saturday in South Carolina become very important in this overall race.
DAVID BRODER: Very important. And, as you know, it's an interesting set-up because South Carolina does not have party registration. Anybody whose name is on the books as a registered voter -- be they Republican, independent or Democratic -- can go in and ask for a Republican ballot on Saturday. There is no Democratic contest here on the same day so it's wide open for anybody who wants to play.
JIM LEHRER: Ron, do you buy that theory, that thesis?
RON BROWNSTEIN: Well, generally South Carolinahas been a critical primary, Jim, in settling the Republican nomination all the way back to 1980, whether it was Ronald Reagan in 1980, George Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, they all used this as a pivotal state on the road to the nomination.
JIM LEHRER: And that's because -- explain why. Because it comes right after New Hampshire and somebody continues to bounce or bounces back after New Hampshire, right?
RON BROWNSTEIN: Exactly. In each case, in 1980, 1988 and 1996, the front-runner stumbled in New Hampshire or Iowa and was restored to their status in South Carolina. It is a state that bends toward the establishment party traditionally, but McCain's success really comes from expanding the electorate. And that's why it's a little unpredictable. Right now the latest polls clearly show Bush moving back ahead pretty consistently from poll to poll. But the question mark, the real issue here, is who comes out to vote?
Can McCain bring in an unusually large number of independents and Democrats to offset what Bush has done much better than he did in New Hampshire, which is mobilize the conservative Republican base, polarize the election on a kind of left/right continuum and make himself the candidate of sort of the traditional conservative agenda.
That is a construct that is difficult for McCain to get over in a state like this that is so conservative. If you look at the kind of coalition that McCain is assembling in other states where the basic center of gravity in the Republican Party isn't quite as far to the right, he may be able to come and compete say in a place like in Michigan, even if he loses narrowly here.
JIM LEHRER: So, you wouldn't buy it carte blanche that it's over if you loses in South Carolina.
RON BROWNSTEIN: No, but again, there's a big difference between winning and losing. And George Bush is pretty much ahead in most states. New Hampshire brought McCain into contention around the country but he still has ground to cover. And South Carolina is the last state with which you can change everything everywhere. By winning South Carolina, you can change the lay of the land really in every significant state. And I think that is a big, lost opportunity that may be fatal for McCain if you can't get over the hump, but, no, not in the sense that there's no tomorrow.
JIM LEHRER: Lee Bandy, are the people of South Carolina, of your state, seeing John McCain and George W. Bush at their best?
LEE BANDY: Well, I think so, although there was a big controversy here for a while about the negative ads, the hard-hitting ads. South Carolinians by and large do not like those negative ads where you attack the candidate. We're a very genteel people down here. We like a good, hard-fought campaign, one that is fought squarely and fairly.
I do think that there was one McCain ad that backfired on him. And that was the one ad where he likened Bush to Clinton. What a lot of people forget down here is that Bush family is very popular. And the South Carolina voters saw that ad and said, "That's a bit of a stretch" and I think it backfired on McCain. And he did finally pull it.
JIM LEHRER: But, in general terms, Lee, are the two men who are campaigning, are they... You've watched them from the beginning of this, not just since they've been in South Carolina. Do you think they're at their prime right now? I mean, the people they're going to choose, the people of South Carolina are going to choose between this man, George W. Bush and this man, John McCain, are they seeing the real people at this point?
LEE BANDY: I think they are. John McCain has campaigned consistently. He campaigned in New Hampshire the same way he's campaigning here. Bush kind of retooled his campaign when he came here. He became more aggressive. He was feisty. And he was hard-hitting. And I think that paid off for him because I feel that McCain's momentum has stalled somewhat and that Bush has been able to regain his footing. I think it's been good for Bush that he had nearly three weeks between New Hampshire and here. He had time to turn around his campaign.
JIM LEHRER: David, how would you answer that question: Are these men at their peak right now?
DAVID BRODER: I've just come into South Carolina today, and I would yield to my colleagues who have been down here much longer, but everything I've seen suggests that Lee is right, that Bush is now delivering much more effectively than he did up in New Hampshire.
You know, there was that sense in New Hampshire that Bush was somehow going through the motions -- that his heart wasn't in it. Everything that I've seen and heard about this race suggests that his heart is in it, and clearly McCain with that boost that he got out of New Hampshire, McCain is on a roll. And talking with the reporters who have been going around with him, he's drawing big crowds and very enthusiastic receptions.
And I think that Bush is getting the same kind of reaction here. I think the answer is that South Carolina is seeing two thoroughly competent, professional politicians going at it very hard.
JIM LEHRER: What would you add to that, Ron?
RON BROWNSTEIN: Jim, I've spent a lot of time here in the last week seeing both of them. I totally agree. I think they are both performing very well. I likened it last week a little bit to like Ali-Fraser.
I mean, you have two political heavyweights who are really strongly making their case not only against each other but for themselves. In a number of these cities that I've been in and these towns, there's no venue big enough for the kinds of crowds they're generating. You're seeing very large, enthusiastic audiences. It's almost as if to some extent they are running parallel campaigns rather than really competing against each other. I really feel that McCain is doing a very good job at activating this unusual reform-oriented, almost parole-like coalition of independents, moderate Republicans and Democrats.
They come out and love his message of reform, they love his message of paying down the debt. On the other hand, Bush is doing a much better job than he did in New Hampshire of mobilizing the core Republicans, the conservative Republicans. And they applaud just as loudly when he calls for cutting taxes as the McCain people do when he calls for using the surplus to pay down the debt. So you have almost a race that is moving on parallel tracks rather than always intersecting.
JIM LEHRER: Lee, how important is this debate tonight?
LEE BANDY: Well, I think the stakes are very high. And the outcome of this primary could depend on the performances tonight of the candidates. Both have a lot riding on this debate.
JIM LEHRER: And specifically, what does Bush, do you think Bush needs to do tonight that he hasn't done up to now or does he add to what he's been doing? What is your feeling about what he should do?
LEE BANDY: I don't think he needs to add much to what he's been doing. As Ron says, he's been attracting big crowds here. They respond to his message. They like his tax-cut plan. They like his Social Security plan. I don't know what else he can do.
JIM LEHRER: What about McCain?
LEE BANDY: McCain, I think, is probably going to take the high road tonight. I think a lot of people think he's going to come out swinging. I don't think he needs to do that. I think he needs to continue to do what he's been doing.
JIM LEHRER: David, what about the point that Lee made earlier that the people of South Carolina were turned off at the beginning by the negative advertising. You've been covering a lot of political campaigns. Is this really down and dirty in South Carolina?
DAVID BRODER: It's certainly much more of a kind of a slugging contest and a few blows below the belt than it was in New Hampshire. I thought that when Governor Bush stood there with a retired army general who questioned Senator McCain's willingness to fight for other veterans -- that that was a pretty low blow. As Lee has said, comparing Governor Bush to President Clinton was certainly in the eyes of Republicans a very low blow. So there have been some... but the stakes are high. And this is, I think, sort of what you have to expect because one of these two men is going to walk out of South Carolina with a really great marked advantage for winning this nomination. Both of them know it. And they're going at it very hard.
JIM LEHRER: Ron, do you feel that too that both of these men and their staffs know, hey, wait a minute, suddenly, we've got to win South Carolina -- Bush and McCain's people feel exactly the same way?
RON BROWNSTEIN: I was really struck in the time I spent with both campaigns the sense of anxiety on both sides. One, they understand the stakes here. Two, because of the nature of McCain's support no one can be really entirely sure of what's going on.
The Bush people worry about a surge of non-Republican voters who will carry McCain over the top. I think the McCain people worry about the weight of, as both Lee and David has talked about, the advertising that's going on against them very heavily from the Bush campaign, a very negative message that is really pounding away on the air waves, but the other groups what they're hearing on talk radio, the sort of informal conservatives network, neither side is sure of the result. Both sides understand that the result matters a lot to their fate. You really feel the tension in talking to a lot of the people in both campaigns.
JIM LEHRER: Lee, you know the voters of your state. Do they tend to make up their minds at the last minute as they did in New Hampshire or do you think most people have already decided what they're going to do on Saturday?
LEE BANDY: I think most South Carolinians have already decided what they're going to do on Saturday. We're not like the voter in New Hampshire. We do have an independent streak here, but it's not as pronounced as it is in New Hampshire. Republican voters here tend to follow the leadership of the party. And of course the leadership of the party is with George Bush.
We hear a lot about crossover votes. And I think McCain has the tougher job of getting his vote out. His strategy calls for getting out veterans, getting out reformed-minded independents, getting out Democrats. In other words, his strategy calls for getting people out to vote in the Republican primary who don't ordinarily participate in the Republican primary. Now, I know the Bush people are saying a lot of Democrats are going to go in to create mischief. I don't believe that. I think that's a myth.
I went to a Democratic county the other day and talked to the Democratic voters. Many said they were going to cross over and vote for John McCain because they genuinely like him. Then they said in the next breath, I will not vote for Al Gore or Bill Bradley in November.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. So, a lot of unknowns. Thank you, Lee, Ron, and David.