McCain, Bradley looking to sway independent voters

By Walter V. Robinson, Globe Staff, 12/16/99

hen John McCain and Bill Bradley grasp hands across party lines today amid a forest of camera tripods in Claremont, N.H., over their common support for campaign finance reform, both candidates will also share the same political priority: corralling independent voters who seem attracted by their outsider status.

Few voters rate the campaign finance issue itself very highly among national priorities. But its symbolism - that Washington needs to be wrested from the grasp of insiders - has become a powerful elixir for many voters and has helped lift both men into contention for their party's nominations.

In interviews yesterday, strategists in both parties said McCain, the Republican, and Bradley, the Democrat, both hope to solidify their images, especially among independents, as innovators willing to take on the established interests gathered around Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore.

The meeting has also served to focus attention on the state's swelling ranks of independent voters, and whether they may place a decisive role in the outcome of either, or both, party primaries on Feb. 1.

In New Hampshire, at least, Bradley and McCain have found a receptive audience among such voters.

''John McCain tells you what he thinks and what he'll do. I like that. We've had too many liars in the White House,'' said Lucille Bradley, a retired nurse from Manchester who said she regrets having voted for Bill Clinton. Patricia Anderson, an undecided voter who lives in Marlow, a town near Keene, said she is undecided but added: ''I like Bill Bradley. He's got new ideas.''

Andrew Kohut, the director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, noted yesterday that a new TIME/CNN poll in New Hampshire shows both McCain and Bradley scoring well against their intraparty rivals for inspiring voters and offering fresh ideas. Both insurgents, Kohut said, appear to be benefiting from a perception that they are genuine.

''This is a pretty smart thing for them to be doing - whatever their differences - to draw attention to how new and different their candidacies are,'' Kohut said of the joint appearance today.

If there is a critical audience for both men today, it is independents like Anderson, who says she's leaning toward taking a Democratic ballot but just might take a GOP ballot and vote for McCain.

According to several recent polls, which have McCain even with Bush and Bradley even with Gore, it is independent voters who have provided both with their strongest support.

This year, the independent voter infatuation with McCain and Bradley looms large in New Hampshire; both men are hugely popular with this group, much more so than Gore or Bush, according to several recent polls. These voters, officially called ''unenrolled,'' may vote in either primary, and they are now a plurality in the state. Secretary of State William Gardner, in an interview yesterday, said newly registered voters are predominantly unenrolled and young, with most voicing a belief that the government is run by special interests and that officeholders do not work for the common good.

Despite the increasing numbers of unenrolled voters, most analysts say the vast majority of independents are either predictable Republican or Democratic voters in primaries. And although polls show that Democratic-leaning independents like McCain and Republican-leaning independents admire Bradley, doubt remains that there is a large pool of potential crossover voters.

''I'm still not convinced that there are a lot of independent voters who could vote for either Bradley or McCain, since these two candidates are so far apart on policy positions,'' said Dean Spiliotes, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. But for some independents, Spiliotes added, it is possible that preoccupation with general traits - like leadership style and reformist tendencies - ''could trump'' their concerns about issue differences.

Indeed, even on campaign finance, the differences of style and substance between McCain and Bradley are notable.

McCain has a greater rhetorical claim to the issue: It is the foundation to his campaign, that special interests control what happens in Washington, even in the Senate Commerce Committee he chairs.

Bradley makes more sparing use of the issue. Some Democrats said yesterday that it often seems a cudgel that can be used to bloody Gore.

''Obviously, if John McCain raises the fund-raising abuses of the Clinton-Gore campaign of 1996, Bill Bradley will be happy to be standing there,'' said William G. Carrick, a Democratic political consultant based in California.

Thomas D. Rath, a former state attorney general who is supporting Bush, said the campaign finance appeal holds considerable potential for Bradley, since Democrats are more likely to be receptive on the issue.

Rath said registered Republicans are more likely to be cool to changing a system that tends to benefit their party more.

If campaign finance reform has added to the Bradley and McCain appeal, and has given it more luster today, it is not because either man holds the moral high ground on the issue, their rivals say.

Doug Hattaway, Gore's spokesman in New Hampshire, seemed somewhat bemused by the reform labels Bradley and McCain are wearing. Both men, he noted yesterday, have been flying around the country on corporate jets provided by special interests, and paying just a fraction of the cost - a common, and legal, practice under the present campaign finance system. And both men have mined special interests for much of the money they have raised.

Then, too, Bradley and McCain have different ideas about what constitutes reform. McCain wants to ban so-called soft money, the unlimited amounts that corporations and individuals can give to committees for party-building, although the donations are often spent to support candidates. Bradley supports an end to soft money. But he also advocates public financing of congressional campaigns, which McCain opposes.

The Bradley and McCain campaigns chose Claremont for symbolic reasons too. It is where Clinton and Newt Gingrich, then the House speaker, met in 1995 and, with a handshake, promised to create a commission to look at changing campaign finance laws. The commission never materialized. And a year later, both parties loosely interpreted existing law to raise tens of millions of dollars. Clinton, for one, was accused of renting out the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House in return for large donations. Gore raised funds during a visit to a Buddhist temple.

Four years later, there remains a bitter aftertaste for some. ''I believed in Bill Clinton. But he destroyed any trust I had in him - and in the people around him,'' said William D. Granfield, an independent from Manchester, who said he would not vote for Gore because of this.

At the moment, Granfield said, he's leaning toward McCain. But he added that he knows very little about Bradley, and might yet find him a possible alternative. ''I'm leaning toward the Republican primary, and McCain,'' he said. ''But it's a long time until February 1, and I could change my mind.''