Sens. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., and Phil Gramm, R-Texas, pillars of the Republican establishment, are worried at the prospect of having their colleague, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., win their party's presidential nomination.
In their meeting with The Chronicle editorial board Monday, Coverdell and Gramm conceded McCain is a courageous, admirable man. They like him personally; their quarrel with him is on the issues:
McCain's campaign finance reform bill is biased toward Big Labor, thereby hurting the GOP and helping Democrats. Also, and perhaps more important, McCain's "targeted" tax cut proposals are skimpier than President Clinton's.
Just like the president, say Coverdell and Gramm, the Arizonan would keep nearly all the surplus in Washington, ostensibly to save Social Security and pay down the national debt, but in reality it would be spent to grow the government because that's what politicians with money do in Washington.
How can Republicans be for helping Democrats and growing the government? Obviously, they aren't. And neither is Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who Gramm and Coverdell strongly back. The Bush campaign after a lot of mushy talk about "compassionate conservatism" is, indeed, appealing to that old time conservative Republican religion.
But here's the problem. All last year the GOP establishment -- most senators, governors, etc. -- pushed the personable Bush as a "can't lose" candidate who would chase Vice President Al Gore back to Tennessee in November 2000 and probably bring in a large GOP House majority as well.
Now, in the wake of New Hampshire, the establishment is trying to shift the focus from electability to issues because the "can't lose" candidate just lost big to McCain. The senator also showed the ability that Bush was thought to have before New Hampshire -- pulling in independents and some Democrats.
Gramm, Coverdell, the GOP establishment, et al, may still be able to save Bush with core Republicans if they succeed in shifting the focus to issues. But the McCain "crusade" is not so much about issues as it is about character, personality, courage, and presidential gravitas.
Basically, the former Vietnam prisoner-of-war hero is campaigning as the "anti-Clinton." This succeeded marvelously in the Granite State and if it wins again in South Carolina it will show that GOP voters are more concerned with electability -- in other words defeating Gore or Bill Bradley -- than they are in issues.