The days of negative campaigning are over. America has grown too smart for that. Right. And polo is the inner-city game of choice.
The ghost of Lee Atwater is still with us, people. He's just taken to wearing a new set of emperor's clothes. In today's fast-paced, Internet-fueled political world, the new trend is to first paint your opponent as the heinous negative campaigner and then counterpunch him with packs of video Doberman pinschers of your own, sadly bemoaning your opponent's lack of ethics. The old switcheroo.
In South Carolina, George Bush ran ads attacking John McCain for comparing George W. to Bill Clinton, which in the Republican Party is like calling somebody Satan's weirdo anthrax-infected brother. Two-thirds of the South Carolinians left the polls thinking Bush was the positive campaigner while half thought McCain the negative one. Even the day after winning, Bush said, "He learned a lesson I hope, from that kind of negative campaigning."
Yeah, he learned a lesson all right. He learned Lee Atwater was right. He learned George Bush won't let reality intrude on strategy. He learned that voters are blind sheep. And he used that knowledge in Michigan with the same push polls he was accused of using in South Carolina. If you're going to be convicted of it, you might as well profit from the crime.
This is the same exact tactic Dad used so effectively on Bob Dole in New Hampshire '88. So maybe it's in the genes. Or maybe it's a Texas thing. Wonder how far back in the polls Bush will be before he either attacks or adopts McCain's war record. "I don't know what the big deal is. He got captured. That's not heroic. The guy sat out the war, for crum's sake. I was at the Hanoi Hilton too, you know. Found it a little stuffy. Laura liked the little hand lotions though. Had a staffer write them a letter. They sent us a case. Good people if you ask me. Certainly not gooks."
The weirdest part of George attacking John is that Bush is fast becoming McCain. John McCain is a reformer. Suddenly, George W. Bush is a reformer. John McCain rides the Straight Talk Express. George W. Bush now rides the Victory Express. John McCain takes questions from the audience. George W. Bush pretends to take questions from the audience. John McCain hates George W. Bush. George W. Bush hates ... hey, that's cheating.
Of course in Michigan, McCain was able to turn it around because, well, to be honest, voters there aren't as gullible as they are in South Carolina. Bush claimed Michigan Democrats mobilized for McCain because the Arizona senator will be the easier target in November.
Making things even crazier is McCain's status as the darling of the "liberal media elite," which makes the far-right assume he's a liberal too. Don't they realize there's candy on that bus? Hope they don't run out. Not a lot of open primaries left.
Win one. Lose one. Win one. McCain wins Michigan, and MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN are celebrating like orphaned mockingbirds in a Swiss cuckoo factory. It's a horse race again. With all sorts of fixed heats, corkscrewed jockeys, and trainers carrying saddlebags full of "vitamins" to come.
McCain may have won the Republican primary, but he didn't win the hearts of Republicans. As a matter of fact, he lost them three to one. I think Keyes did better. Iron John did win Independents two to one and Democrats six to one, but how many of them are going to be immune to the mesmerizing skills of Al Gore and jump into the Liberal Commie Pinko Rat Bastard camp come November?
March 7 looms huge now, with New York and California among the 14 participants. And not even a bookie with a talking horse could deny that Fat Tuesday could go either way. Is George W. Bush now destined to retrieve the heart of his party thanks to the upcoming slate of closed primaries (in which Democrats can't defect to McCain), or does the CNN poll showing McCain 25 points ahead of Gore and Bush sway the faithful into full blown ABG (Anybody But Gore) mode?
Stay tuned. Only Lee Atwater's specter knows for sure.
Will Durst is covering election 2000 for the MoJo Wire. He is also host of the PBS series "The Citizen Durst Report" and thinks Brian Williams is a mama's boy.