McCain aims for repeat of Reagan's upset in S.C.

By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 2/12/2000

PARTANBURG, S.C. - To Lanny Wiles, the scenario seems eerily familiar. A well-financed Texan, backed by the political establishment, expects to ride a South Carolina win to the White House. But here the Texan faces a self-proclaimed outsider, who has few congressional endorsements but a magnetic style that wins over independents and Democrats.

Wiles now is seeing this story play out for a second time. Twenty years ago, he helped guide Ronald Reagan to victory here against former Texas governor John Connally. Today, Wiles is a senior aide by the side of Senator John McCain, helping to run a Reagan-like strategy against Texas Governor George W. Bush.

''This is very reminiscent of 1980,'' Wiles said, referring to McCain's reception here. ''I see the same looks in people's faces, the same quiver of their lips.''

In his message, his story-telling and appeal beyond the Republican Party, McCain is trying, in many ways, to run as Reagan redux. McCain's most frequent theme is that he is trying to ''build bridges'' much the way the former president and California governor did. Just as Reagan won the presidency with the votes of ''Reagan Democrats'' and independents, McCain is trying to win here by taking advantage of rules that allow Democrats and independents to vote in the GOP primary. McCain is doing all of this with the help of a cadre of Reaganites that includes the former president's chief of staff, his California strategist, and numerous others.

Of course, nearly every Republican invokes Reagan. Bush, the son of Reagan's vice president, spent much of last week trying to paint McCain as anything but Reaganesque. The Texas governor, now running as a ''reformer with results,'' said ''Chairman McCain'' is a Washington insider who bears a greater resemblance to the two Democratic candidates for president, Vice President Al Gore and former senator Bill Bradley.

''Unlike Reagan, John McCain has a long pattern of saying one thing and doing another,'' Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said. It's Bush who is like Reagan, Fleischer said, ''when it comes to policy, when it comes to his vision of America.''

Still, McCain does have a strong, personal tie to Reagan - one that he rarely talks about. When McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, Reagan, then the governor of California, became one of his most outspoken advocates. While McCain was in the news as a POW, Reagan and his wife, Nancy, became friendly with McCain's first wife, Carol, inviting her to dinner and trying to console her for her husband's captivity. When McCain was released in 1973, he and Carol went to several dinners with the Reagans.

After McCain divorced Carol, Nancy Reagan remained close to her and eventually hired her as director of the White House visitors' office. Today, while Nancy Reagan is neutral in the presidential contest, a significant number of Reaganites are sprinkled through the McCain campaign, especially in South Carolina, where Reagan made his breakthrough 20 years ago.

''This campaign is very similar,'' said Richard Quinn, who worked on the Reagan effort here in tandem with the late Lee Atwater and now is McCain's chief consultant. ''Absolutely similar.''

If McCain wins this state's primary, it will probably be because of the Reaganesque strategy on display at events such as one last Wednesday night, when McCain appeared before an audience of 800 at Clemson University for a taping of MSNBC-TV's ''Hardball.'' His aura seemed to transcend policy differences: He told an independent favoring abortion rights that he was ''pro-life,'' and she said she would support him. He told a Democratic backer of affirmative action that he opposed the program, and the Democrat said he would vote for McCain because he didn't support Bush.

Nicole Molinari, a Massachusetts native who recently registered to vote in the South Carolina primary, said in an interview that she will back McCain even though she told the senator during the ''Hardball'' show that she was disappointed with his stance on abortion. Such is her admiration for the character and life story of the former Vietnam prisoner of war.

This, perhaps more than anything else, is the Reagan in McCain. His campaign is benefiting, as Reagan did, from voters who ''project'' onto him what they want to see, while looking past the flaws or the positions they disagree with.

But if moderate voters are assuming that McCain isn't as conservative as he says he is, they may be in for a surprise. When a reporter suggested to McCain that many voters seem to assume that he won't implement some of his most conservative proposals, he got angry during a bus ride on his ''Straight Talk Express.''

''If so, we have undermined the basic premise and principle of what we view as the success of this campaign, which is straight talk and straight answers,'' McCain said. ''If someone wants to say, `Gee, he really doesn't mean it,' that's OK with me. I'm sorry I have given that impression.''

On abortion, for example, McCain said that if he were governor, he would seek to ban the practice, ''but I'm not running for governor.'' McCain was then asked whether that wasn't having it both ways - opposing abortion while saying it was up to someone else.

''For that to be viewed as a warm and fuzzy message, frankly that flies in the face of our experience,'' McCain said, growing angrier. ''I think the states should decide. For you to distort that into some other kind of interpretation, very frankly, is a fanciful kind of attitude.''

McCain, while clearly winning over some moderates and liberals simply with his call for campaign finance overhaul and tobacco regulation, actually is one of the most conservative members of the Senate on most other issues. McCain's appeal, however, is more subtle, something that old Reaganites see: it is the way he hides his natural loner style with a sunniness, the way he rattles off one-liners and the way he frames his language.

''Reagan was very good with people even though he was known as a loner. McCain is the same way,'' said Ken Duberstein, the former Reagan chief of staff who is now a top McCain adviser. ''One of the reasons why I was attracted to John McCain is that I saw a lot of Reagan in him.''

Ken Khachigian, Reagan's chief speech writer in 1980 and now McCain's top California strategist, said Reagan and McCain both benefited from their celebrity status, Reagan as an actor and governor, McCain as a POW and senator. ''It's an accident of history'' that the similarities exist, Khachigian said. ''But in my own mind, it's constantly there.''

Certainly, it is there in McCain's central campaign theme and imagery - when he inveighs against the ''Iron Triangle'' of Washington big money, special interests and legislation he seems almost to echo Reagan's thunder against the ''buddy system'' in Washington of lobbyists and big business.

Reagan's ''theme,'' Khachigian said, ''is very much the same as ours.''

Bush, to be sure, has plenty of Reagan hands on board, including George Shultz, the former secretary of state. But some key Reaganites have remained neutral, including Colin Powell, the national security adviser under Reagan and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Bush.

None of this is to suggest that McCain is a Reagan clone. Reagan promoted huge tax cuts that may be more similar to the Bush plan than any advocated by McCain, who opposes plans giving generous tax breaks to the wealthy. McCain's biggest challenge may be that the times are different; Reagan ran during economic turmoil, while McCain is campaigning amid prosperity.

And, in the end, the GOP race may hinge less on which candidate is more like Reagan than which one has the better sense of South Carolina's political history, and Reagan's place in it.

For months, the Bush campaign has recited the story of how former president Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996 relied on South Carolina as an establishment-built ''firewall'' that would protect them from a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. But such theorizing ignores the 1980 race, when the establishment was turned on its head by Reagan. It is this strategy that McCain is following.

Connally, with $10 million of his own money, was so well-financed when he launched his campaign that many thought him unbeatable, just as Bush's $70 million war chest once made him seem invincible. Connally had many endorsements, including the backing of Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who now supports Bush. Reagan, meanwhile, came to South Carolina fresh from a stunning New Hampshire victory, just like McCain.

Many forget, Wiles said, ''that Reagan was endorsed by only 14 members of Congress. We were the outsiders, we ran the insurgency campaign.'' Indeed, Wiles notes, the strategy was partly designed to defeat not just Connally but Bush's father, a symbol of the establishment who lost his 1980 race to Reagan. Now, Wiles and the other old Reagan hands hope, the same strategy can work once again, against another Bush.