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Can this party be saved?

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Nobody has ever accused me of being normal. So rather than wait till the Republican presidential candidates descended on us, I came here to see them in something like their natural habitat. South Carolina, incidentally, is not like us.

The big issue here is the Confederate battle flag flying over the state Capitol, something many blacks think symbolizes slavery. It’s actually worse than that; as ads in the local newspapers indicated, whites see it mainly as a reminder that the wrong side won the Civil War. "Lest We Forget ... Columbia burned Feb. 17-18, 1865," huge type hollered, and went on to quote one Charles Brown of Michigan (no relation to Snoopy) as to how dreadful the North was. And I thought the United Auto Workers union lived in the past.

Anyway; while you have the advantage of knowing what I didn’t as I wrote these words – how Michigan’s primary came out – it seems clear both George W. Bush and John McCain, dogged by minicandidate Alan Keyes, would soldier on at least through the vast multi-state primary March 7, and that one of them will eventually face Al Gore.

I watched McCain get his butt kicked in South Carolina, mostly by the Christian right. The day before, someone sent a leaflet to a lot of those creatures saying that McCain called the Confederate battle flag a "red rag."

Unfortunately, he hadn’t, but that settled any question about Bush, a man with a nasty smirk and no detectable warmth. Though Ronald Reagan’s charms were entirely lost on me, I had to grant that if you turned off your cerebrum, he could sometimes play a credible President.

Bush minor, though, isn’t any better than a nasty Dan Quayle. "If there are some people getting weak-kneed we need to know who they are," he fairly spat two days before the Palmetto State primary, when it looked like McCain had a chance.

This is a man who made fun of Karla Faye Tucker’s pleas for mercy after he refused to stop her execution. His entire shallow and venal record as governor of Texas is brilliantly exposed in Molly Ivins and Lou DuBose’s new Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush (Random House).

Yet is that all there is? I genuinely expected to find something to impress me, but after watching him for days, I must report there ain’t nothin’, except, perhaps, for his demure librarian wife, Laura. Kevin Phillips, a famous Republican strategist whose GOP loyalties are hampered by a good mind, nailed the secret of his appeal in a current Harper’s piece called to my attention by the eminent scholar Bill Dufty.

"Seven years of watching the Ozark Casanova in the White House have transformed our collective memory of George Senior from yesterday’s tinny irrelevance into a model of dignity and gentlemanly behavior," and so we want a restoration.

This, KP rightly points out, would be farce. Bush Lite is arrogant, lazy, and intellectually dim. Yet what of McCain, who I thought of, if at all, as a right-wing military type with a minor role in the Keating Five savings and loan scandal?

Apart from the POW stuff (five years in the Hanoi Hilton, torture, heroism, etc.) I thought of him as pretty much a standard right-winger on abortion, gun control, etc., perhaps even worse on the environment than most. Plus he is said to believe we should have won the Vietnam War, and wanted to send ground troops to Kosovo. Swell.

True, he was good on campaign finance reform and tobacco regulation, but hey, even John Engler isn’t all bad; he opposes the death penalty. One night last fall I saw McCain’s wife, Cindy, a lady who looks mildly troubled, like Kitty Dukakis, confessing her past prescription drug problems to Barbara Walters. Groan.

But then came the landslide in New Hampshire. Was McCain fueled by anything other than urge-for-a-horserace media hype? Last week I went to see him at a huge rally in an ancient gym at the picturesque College of Charleston.

Many of his student supporters were young women who, on interrogation, confessed themselves as basically Democrats. "I can’t even begin to list the reasons why I am for him," one Jennifer said. A beefy, mustachioed middle-aged man elbowed next to me in the press section, recording him with a video camera.

"I can’t help feeling that I’m looking at the next president," he said.

To my astonishment, when he swept into the auditorium, it did feel like that. "You can only govern in America if you represent the hopes and dreams of every American," he said, and it sounded bizarrely sincere. What was this all about? I knew the guy was spontaneous. What I hadn’t suspected was that McCain could put on a cheesy college sweatshirt, get showered with confetti, clutch infants – and retain a certain gravitas.

Suddenly I realized that he wasn’t like the others. He was older, tougher, and had passed through fire, which may be part of what we want in a leader. What if McCain could make a difference and reform our completely corrupt campaign system?

Could that be worth putting up with some distasteful items in his issue grocery cart? What if this was that rarest of politicians, one really capable of mental growth?

You can never be too careful. Hunter Thompson once made a fool of himself by proclaiming Jimmy Carter the savior. But if there is any chance we just might be spared a choice between heirs apparent, it may be worth keeping an eye and mind open.

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