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Bush's right-wing swing dashes hopes

Two weeks ago, I was talking politics with a conservative lawyer from New York. A staunchly partisan Republican who had even attended a $1,000-per-plate fundraiser for Gov. George W. Bush earlier in the year, he told me that he was now a strong John McCain supporter because only the senator from Arizona could beat Al Gore in November. A McCain man myself, I was pleased to hear these salvos fired in his favor from the conservative wing of the party. In the aftermath of Bush's victories on Super Tuesday, however, it seems other Republicans did not employ my friend's logic. They failed to do so at the likely cost of the presidency this coming November and to the detriment of American politics as a whole.

George W. Bush entered the campaign as the anointed front-runner. Starting his campaign among big money donors and political king makers, he sought to sew up the race before any ordinary person could have a say. He billed himself as a coalition builder, a unifier and the standard bearer of "compassionate conservatism." This, he (or his handlers) argued, would capture the spirit of Ronald Reagan and sweep the Republicans to victory. Deciding to look past "Dubya's" reputation as an untested lightweight, the smart Republican money and influence already not associated with the Texas governor clamored behind him.


When the establishment's favorite son discovered that primary wins require more effort than gentlemen's C's at Yale, though, he hung a hard right in South Carolina and went on the attack. Despite a McCain rebound in Michigan, from Dixie on, this strategy won Bush the campaign — with the help of an ill-advised negative push by McCain against the Christian Coalition. Members of the GOP establishment now dances in the streets of California and New York, and their followers keep the beat, but they do not realize the cost of victory.

Despite losing, McCain wounded Bush and bled him hard. No longer the centrist, compassionate, bridge-building Republican candidate who could lure independent voters, Bush's public veering into the arms of religious conservatives undercut those values so crucial to his own viability in the general election. Republican primary voters may forgive him for Bob Jones and not be troubled by his commiseration with the religious right, but independents and Democrats, when presented with an unscathed and increasingly strong centrist alternative in Al Gore, will choose the latter. Still the silver-spooned son of questionable credentials, now Bush has also lost the cosmetic veneer of mainstream appeal so necessary for presidential victory.

In refusing to switch horses midstream, the GOP and religious right ride a mount that will drown come November. Whether out of loyalty, stubbornness or fear that it could not control McCain, the GOP rejected a war hero with largely conservative credentials whose energy, independent leadership and refreshing candidness drew flocks of independent and Democratic voters. By standing behind Bush and assailing McCain, the GOP defeated the one candidate who could keep Gore away from Pennsylvania Avenue, and when Al's Supreme Court appointees secure Roe v. Wade for years to come, conservatives will have no one to blame but themselves.

Perhaps the biggest winner in this race, however, is cynicism. In an age where political candidates increasingly resemble the television anchors who cover them, America briefly entertained the dream that an unaffected, courageous and financially out-gunned underdog could buck the establishment. Despite this wave of optimism, we found that in the political arena, David's sling is little match to Goliath's electoral machine gun. Packaged by image consultants and fueled by advertisements, political endorsements and family ties, Product Bush more closely resembles a box of cereal than a President. Substituting vapid generalities for vision and slogans for character, the Republican nominee's candidacy provides uninspired reading material at the breakfast table and contents puffed light with air. The saddest part for the GOP and all who desperately want to believe in American politics is that it did not have to end up this way. Jeff Pojanowski is a Woodrow Wilson School major from Ramsey, N.J. He can be reached at