Smith had been planning to march in Amherst's Fourth of July parade, using a nautical theme. His campaign has rented a boat on a trailer to serve as a float. His supporters have donned sailor caps and t-shirts printed with captain's wheels and Smith's campaign theme: "Chart the Right Course for America." In fact, the only thing missing is the skipper himself. Smith has decided not to march, after all.

His followers aren't sure what changed his mind, but my guess is that the answer can be found in one word--nay, one initial. W., the $36 million man, has decided to march, and he immediately attracts a throng numbering more than 100: a squad of cheerleaders, a clown on stilts, a man with a remote-controlled skunk, and a woman with a sign reading: "WE WANT MAGNETS ON YOUR BODY WHEN YOU ARE IN THE WHITE HOUSE." A calliope on wheels plays carnival music. Bush aides hand out Bush baseball cards ("Position: Governor of 2nd Largest State," they read and tout, "Reduced welfare rolls by more than 335,000," as if that were a slugging percentage.) Reporters chase Bush with microphones on long poles, like so many drum majors with batons.

Had Smith come, he would have been forgotten, much as Gary Bauer now finds himself as he watches the Bush scrum. A small gang of Bauer volunteers is trying to stir up enthusiasm for their man. One young woman holds a sign saying, "YO QUIERO BAUER"--for all those Spanish-speaking New Hampshire residents. Another Bauer sign proclaims, "BAUER? YEAH, BABY." (It's unclear how the refrain of the sex-crazed Austin Powers will help the torchbearer of the religious right.) Bauer and his minions, squeezed between Bush and a procession of local realtors marching with briefcases, can't even persuade some spectators to shake the candidate's hand and take his leaflets. "Who's this Bauer guy?" one woman asks. "Is he a Democrat?" another confused spectator inquires. "Who's that?" a girl asks her mother. "Daddy just told me who he is," the mother replies, "and he's not somebody we would ever vote for."


But, if the parade is another coronation event for Bush, the scene is entirely different a few hours later in Hopkinton. Here, at a picnic held by an antitax group, Smith, Bauer, and Pat Buchanan are the stars--and it's Bush who has stayed away. The 1,200 attendees, many wearing pro-life stickers and one displaying plastic fetuses, fill the place with boos whenever Bush's name and his $36 million war chest are mentioned. "Let me say to that guy, George, with all his money: you're not going to win," Smith bellows. Bauer declares: "We don't have kings here." And Buchanan, amid chants of "Go third party," shouts: "We're not into coronations up here." When the attendees cast their votes in a straw poll, Buchanan gets 58 percent to Bauer's 21 percent and Smith's nine percent. Bush's support? One percent.

Conservatives never loved Bush nor, for that matter, his father. But his record level of fund-raising--an astonishing $36 million in the first six months of the year--seems to have galvanized the right in opposition to him. Smith, on July 13, quit the GOP. Buchanan has flirted with a Reform Party run, and Bauer has made hostile noises. True, conservatives are famous for empty threats about third parties. But Richard Lessner, the former editorial voice of the Manchester Union Leader, tells me over a plate of beans and sausage in Hopkinton that he sees a "critical mass" of frustration. "The Bush phenomenon has really rocked the Republican right," Lessner says. "He's going to win without a single vote being cast." Most galling is the $480 average contribution to Bush--not exactly from Mom and Pop. "People here feel he's another guy bought and paid for by Goldman Sachs."


A split in the republican party would, under normal circumstances, hand the election to the Democrats. But these are not normal circumstances. The Gore campaign is in full meltdown mode. The latest is that Gore, tossing his anti-tobacco principles, hired ad man Carter Eskew, the mastermind of the tobacco industry's fight against the administration's anti-tobacco legislation. Not only does this damage Gore's ability to use tobacco as an issue, but it has injected further turmoil into the fractious Gore camp; Gore's existing ad man, Bob Squier, was Eskew's mentor--before they had a bitter falling-out. After Eskew came aboard the Gore campaign, Squier shared his hurt feelings on the front page of The New York Times.

The worst, however, may be yet to come. Gore's chief of staff, Ron Klain, is so serious about quitting that he's been talking about jobs with a couple of Washington law firms. Gore is said to be working on Klain to stay, as he should. Klain is as smart and as decent a man as there is in politics, and Gore can't afford to pack his roster with people like Eskew while losing people like Klain. And, while Gore continues to inflict damage upon himself, Bill Bradley has finally begun to fill in some of his Big Ideas. He upstaged the timid Gore campaign with a strong anti-handgun proposal (large portions of which Gore copied in his own proposal on July 12), and, on July 22, Bradley will stand before the National Press Club to outdo the vice president with a specific proposal for campaign finance reform. Whether or not Bradley can beat Gore--and that still seems unlikely--a contested race might not leave either with enough money to compete against the $36 million man next spring.


Those of us who don't carry around plastic fetuses should be encouraged by the right's loathing of Bush. If he's making those kinds of enemies, he's probably a sensible fellow. Still, the conservatives are right that there's something obscene about his $36 million take. Gore would have been able to make an issue of it were it not for his own fund-raising controversies from 1996. Absurdly, the greatest voice now for the little guy is Steve Forbes, who will spend his personal millions to make sure the Republican primary is competitive.

Of course, there's still John McCain, champion of campaign finance reform. McCain sent supporters an editorial about Bush from the Littleton, New Hampshire, Courier. "It appears once again that money can buy everything," the editors opined. "Money can buy public office, money can buy public policy, money can buy the public interest and all but disenfranchise those who don't have it." The Courier's solution: "Imagine a presidential race between McCain and former Senator Bill Bradley."

That's quite a fantasy. But why stop there? Imagine a McCain-Bradley debate interrupted by the arrival of a large boat on a flatbed truck. On the deck of the boat stands a six-foot-six, pear-shaped figure, a pirate hat concealing his comb-over, a dagger in one hand, a hook on the other, and a black patch over his eye. "Ladies and gentlemen," the moderator intones, "the nominee of the U.S. Taxpayers Party, former Republican Bob Smith."

Dana Milbank writes a column and a blog for The Washington Post.

By Dana Milbank