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Bill Press analysis: McCain wins second debate in a row

Bush merely holds his own

By Bill Press/CNN

December 7, 1999
Web posted at: 12:29 p.m. EST (1729 GMT)

Woody Allen had it backward. Ninety percent of success is not just showing up. Ninety percent of success is not showing up at all. John McCain proved it Monday night.

Oh, ironies of ironies! John McCain was the only one of six GOP presidential wannabes not to show up on stage in Phoenix -- and he still won, hands down. Not only that, appearing full-screen from Boston, McCain made the other five look like Lilliputians.

McCain again displayed his magnetic, self-deprecating humor -- at one time referring to himself as "Miss Congeniality" of the U.S. Senate. He was the only one to demonstrate a depth of knowledge on every issue from taxes to foreign policy. He even managed to lecture George Bush by pointing out the importance of Chechnya on world oil prices. And he skillfully managed to bring almost every question back to his winning, trademark theme of campaign reform.

Forget, for a moment, the other four candidates (which is not hard to do). What everybody, in Phoenix and across the nation, wanted to see was the contrast between John McCain and George W. Bush. And the contrast was manifest.

John McCain soared with a noble message of: We can be a great people again; join me in this great crusade of cleaning up government and young people will once again believe in a cause that's greater than themselves. George Bush limped through the debate with his staid message of: I'm governor of the second-largest state in the union; elect me and I'll cut your taxes. It was like the difference between an eagle and a pigeon.

Indeed, what was most striking to me about the entire debate was how pedestrian George W. Bush seems, seen up close on television. What happened to the mythical Texan giant who would crush all his opponents?

Here, to me, is the shocking truth about last night's debate: George Bush was just one more man on the stage -- no more, no less. In no way did he stand out from Gary Bauer, Orrin Hatch, Alan Keyes, Steve Forbes or John McCain. And that is a hell of a thing to say about a front-runner.

In two debates now, Bush has appeared tense and uptight -- and his answers have been, for the most part, memorized stock lines from his standard stump speech. If I hear him boast one more time "I'm governor of the nation's second largest state, therefore I know how to lead," I'm going to throw up.

Surprisingly, for a man who got his start in the oil business, Bush even bungled an easy question from Steve Forbes about oil pricing. Asked what he would do to keep prices down this winter, Bush said: encourage more exploration. As Forbes pointed out, that may be a good idea, but it takes years, and doesn't solve the immediate problem.

But the most disappointing part about the debate was: the candidates were just too damned nice. Given the opportunity to ask tough questions of each other, they offered wet kisses instead. Only Gary Bauer had the intestinal fortitude to go after George Bush. Everybody else threw softballs. It was no slug fest. It was a real love fest. Come on, guys. Next time, take the gloves off!

One final note. I must confess: The more I hear Orrin Hatch talk about his goofy idea of all six candidates climbing onto the same bus and campaigning like a rock band across the country, the more I like it. Just think. With a little bit of luck, the bus might get lost!

Bill Press is co-host of CNN's "Crossfire."


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