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Open Season

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina--You see a lot of roadkill in South Carolina. The climate is temperate, the possums plentiful. Two-lane highways snake through miles of densely wooded countryside. I myself nearly take down a large goat as I speed along Route 378 at two o'clock in the morning. And, with each fresh carcass my headlights illuminate, I'm reminded of George W. Bush's desperate hope that John McCain's presidential aspirations will wind up in a similar condition-- flattened and forgotten along some dark back road of the Palmetto State.

These are trying times for W. and the Republican establishment. What was supposed to be a quick 'n' easy nomination has turned into an ugly knife fight, sending the Bush camp into near meltdown. Terrified by McCain's New Hampshire landslide, Bush's staff is tacking hard right in South Carolina, groveling before evangelicals and plotting a multi-front smear campaign with pro-tobacco and anti-abortion groups. The goal is to brand McCain with the ultimate political stigma: that he is Clintonesque. And, while arguing that McCain is Clinton, they've also begun claiming that Bush is McCain, the real political outsider, the one who cares about Social Security and veterans, the one who is, as the campaign's new slogan trumpets, "A Reformer with Results."

Despite the incoming flak--or perhaps because of it--life on McCain's Straight Talk Express could not be merrier. On the Friday after the senator's New Hampshire blowout, staff members are gabbing with reporters, snarfing down donuts, reveling in the latest fund-raising and poll numbers, and fielding phone calls from well-wishers. "Since New Hampshire, I've gotten calls from people I haven't heard from in forever," grins one young staffer, cell phone in hand. The buses are rolling toward yet another rally, this one at a restaurant in Myrtle Beach. No one pays any attention to where we're going until the buses round the final corner and a member of the campaign announces brightly, "Of course, the event is being held in the tackiest building for miles around."

"Disneyesque" might be more appropriate. Our destination is one of those medieval theme restaurants where men in tight pants and brightly hued capes run at each other with swords for the amusement of diners. Pennants flutter atop the roof of the main "castle," a mural depicting knights and minstrels runs the length of one wall, and a massive, yellow-and-white tentlike structure sits just across the driveway (for jousting, of course). McCain supporters, joined by three strapping lads in faux chain mail and a woman decked out like Maid Marian, line the drawbridge to the castle's front gate. The logic behind the locale becomes clear as members of the traveling press begin spinning self-consciously cornball leads for the day's stories: "Today, Senator John McCain stepped up his crusade for the Republican nomination"; " Today, John McCain challenged rival George W. Bush to meet on the fields of battle." More reform-themed coverage for the man journalists love to love.

Inside the Hall of Kings, the scene is even more surreal--giant tapestries, coats of arms, fake iron chandeliers flickering with electric candles. Three suits of armor flank the platform where McCain will speak. The hall is cavernous, and it is packed. People are standing on tables, in doorways, behind the stage. When McCain at last enters, the crowd goes wild. There are many, many veterans in attendance, waving miniature American flags. One woman carries a sign that reads: replace a bum with a real american hero.

Representative Mark Sanford opens with a brief explanation of why he's backing McCain. "There's a real need for conservative reform in guvahment," drawls the congressman. The crowd clearly agrees: the veterans flap their flags so hard that it's a miracle no one loses an eye. When his moment comes, McCain takes the reform theme a step further. "On Tuesday night," he proclaims, "a campaign ended and a great national crusade began." The time has arrived, vows McCain, "to give you back your government." As it turns out, military reform is the main topic of this morning's event, but McCain folds everything from tax relief to the ultra-sticky subject of abortion under the " reform" umbrella. At a lunchtime rally up the road in Florence, the senator switches from military to education reform, while the crowd munches contentedly on catfish stew and biscuits. Schools, taxes, the military, Medicare--you name the issue, McCain says the real issue is reform, especially campaign finance reform. "We have to break the iron triangle of lobbyists, big money, and legislation," he intones a dozen times a day. Only then, he says, can the American people--especially young people--reconnect with their government. (Insert thunderous applause here.)

Without question, McCain's reform crusade resonates with an electorate that senses that--economic prosperity notwithstanding--somehow, somewhere, something has gone wrong with our government. There's nothing particularly Republican about the message, except that the guy in the White House is a Democrat. Indeed, in New Hampshire, McCain pulled 40 percent of the Republican vote, but a whopping 60 percent of independents. And much of his support in South Carolina comes from swing voters and Democrats, a fair number of whom turn out for the senator's speeches. "I know quality when I see and hear it," says Burt Wilson, one of several Dems at the Florence event. Impressed with McCain's character and message, Wilson has started recruiting fellow Democrats to the senator's camp. "You gonna vote with us?" a local Republican calls over to Wilson. "You know we can't win unless Democrats vote with us."

McCain's campaign strategists know it, too. But they also know that, in a nasty primary battle, having their candidate appear as anything other than 100 percent Republican could hurt him badly among the GOP loyalists who turn out on primary day. It's a precarious balance not only because many Democrats and independents like McCain because he bucks his party's leadership, but because McCain clearly can't stand that leadership himself.

Twenty-four hours later, on a rainy Saturday afternoon in San Francisco, he practically says so to their face. Having hopped a jet from South Carolina the night before, McCain now stands on the dais in the Grand Peninsula Ballroom of the airport Hyatt. Before him sit some 1,200 California Republicans gathered for the party's semiannual state convention. McCain is the keynote speaker for today's sold-out lunch. (George W. has, for a second time, declined to attend the convention.) The program has barely begun, the senator has yet to say a word, and already he has received three standing ovations--not bad when you consider that this is not a McCain rally but a meeting of the party's establishment. But the senator has a few choice words for the crowd

"I'm very sorry Governor Bush couldn't be here today," McCain tells the audience. "But I've been told he's back home in Austin working on his new book, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Coronation." Ouch. It's a line McCain has been using at his rallies all week--but this isn't exactly an anti- Bush crowd. Many of these folks have been pushing hard for that coronation. " He really needs to be careful about that," one reporter whispers with concern. There is polite applause, but the audience is clearly uncomfortable. Undeterred, McCain continues with his standard stump speech, leaving in all the anti-Bush jabs. He tweaks W.'s tax policies, his negative campaign tactics ("If he can't compete in the arena of ideas, he's not ready for the job!"), and his support for the corrupt campaign finance system, in which the members of this audience are expert practitioners. A scowling, gray-haired woman at the table in front of me sits on her hands for the entire speech. She is not the only one.

McCain seems to genuinely enjoy tweaking his fellow Republicans. And his supporters echo his "what, me worry?" attitude. "What are they going to do that they aren't already doing?" asks adviser Ken Khachigian, a veteran player in the California GOP. If their candidate amasses enough support from rank-and-file Republicans (and independents and Democrats), the establishment will fall into line, reasons McCain's team. The party is desperate for a win, says Khachigian. "I don't think Republicans want to lose for the sake of expressing bitterness at McCain."

But it's not that simple. Khachigian admits that "if you give up your Republican message, you lose." McCain's advisers continually hark back to Reagan, the last anti-establishment Republican to steal Democratic votes. " I'm doing exactly what Ronald Reagan did in 1980," McCain tells voters. "I'm moving that base out." Yet Reagan won over conservative Democrats with conservative issues: cutting taxes, beefing up the military, slashing welfare. McCain is charming Democrats and independents (not to mention the "liberal media") because "reform" provides him with a rhetorical framework to evade clear issue positions altogether. On abortion, for instance, McCain blames both pro-life and pro-choice zealots for "turning a cause into a business" rather than working to make adoption easier and improve foster care. Groups on both sides lash out at him, says McCain, not because of where he stands on abortion but because he wants to take away their big-money grip on government. With "special interests" serving as the all-purpose bad guy, voters of all stripes can embrace the senator's message. Everyone sees McCain as a crusader- -but, depending on their druthers, they see him as a crusader against big tobacco or against gun control or against the decline of the military. Anything you don't like can be labeled a "special interest."

It's an ironic strategy for a straight talker. The press has long pilloried George W. for his vague, fuzzy policy positions. But it may in fact be the straight-shootin' McCain who offers the fewest specifics--particularly on domestic issues. McCain's straight talk often has more to do with style than substance. W.'s campaign churns out detailed position papers. McCain's almost never does, and so far the press hasn't thrashed him for it. Reporters even note sympathetically that he can't: he doesn't have the staff.

But the campaign trail may soon get bumpier. As McCain enjoys more success, he will also come under tougher scrutiny, even from the love-struck media. In a February 6 appearance on "This Week," McCain endured a brutal grilling by Sam Donaldson on everything from fetal-tissue research to the Confederate flag to his own fund-raising practices. Although McCain got off a number of good lines, he was frequently tongue-tied to the point of incoherence. This is the kind of non-straight talk the self-styled maverick cannot afford. Moreover, if George W. can pull himself together and start engaging McCain on substantive issues (as opposed to, say, absurd charges that the senator abandoned veterans), McCain may find his political balancing act in serious jeopardy. But when I ask campaign manager Rick Davis whether he plans to enlist more help in putting out policy details, he shrugs nonchalantly and says, "No, I don't think we need to." He better hope not.