The Magazine

Sleepless in South Carolina

Bleary-eyed and buoyant, the McCain campaign heads to Dixie

Feb 14, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 21 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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The bus pulls into the parking lot of the Beacon Drive-in Restaurant in Spartanburg where McCain will hold his first rally of the day. The conventional understanding is that, in order to win South Carolina, McCain will have to run much farther to the right than he did in New Hampshire. (On primary night, one aide joked that McCain planned to become a John Bircher on the flight to Greenville.) That may be the plan, but there's no evidence of it in McCain's speech. He says the things he always says, except perhaps with a bit more emphasis on his concern for veterans. (South Carolina has more veterans per capita than any other state.) The striking thing about McCain this morning is how hyper he is. He shouts, jabs his finger into the air, and otherwise does a fair imitation of a street-corner orator. On less than two hours sleep he seems more energetic than he ever has.

Back on the bus after the rally, the New Hampshire blowout is still sinking in. Mike Murphy has his laptop computer out and is reading aloud from newspaper stories about the primary. He calls out the headlines in his best WrestleMania announcer's voice: "'McCain Romps,' says the New York Times." McCain chuckles. Murphy reads a few more then comes up with his own, which he'll repeat to reporters throughout the day: "Heard From the Bush Pilothouse: Iceberg!"

McCain is still chuckling, but it seems more in bewilderment than anything. McCain never really expected to get this far, and it's obvious he's not quite sure how it happened. At the moment he is, technically, the front-runner, having racked up one primary to Bush's zero. But for McCain the next several contests will be conducted in sudden-death overtime: one loss and he's out. McCain seems to find the precariousness of it all amusing. "It's the Amazing Wallendas," he says. "Quick, hand me a chair." Murphy looks up from his computer. "I'll get my unicycle," he says.

The comedy routine continues, entertaining as always. But something else about the campaign has changed for good. When McCain gets to his next event and announces, as he has begun to do lately, "I am going to beat Al Gore like a drum," it sounds different. It doesn't sound as much like a joke.

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.