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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Greenville, South Carolina


IT'S THREE IN THE MORNING and hundreds of people are dancing inside a hangar at the Greenville-Spartanburg airport. Thundering techno-pop-disco-soul music blasts from enormous speakers in the corners. Spotlights cut through a haze of smoke to project purple and blue psychedelic designs onto a back wall. There's a small hot-air balloon tethered near the door, a Greyhound-sized tour bus festooned with bunting parked across the concrete floor. The air smells like beer and cigarettes and sweat. No one in the room seems to be over 22. A lot of them are jumping up and down drunkenly in place and shouting: "John McCain! John McCain!"


For the reporters wandering in, bleary-eyed from hours on a charter flight from Manchester, it's like stumbling upon some weird, secret Southern ritual. John McCain has just won the New Hampshire primary, and this is supposed to be his first post-victory political rally. Instead it feels like an after-hours rave. Or intermission at a Dead show. It feels subversive.


And, in a way, it is. John McCain has been running for president for about a year. Scores of reporters have written hundreds of stories about his campaign, most of them positive, many of them fawning. Yet in that time virtually nobody who covered McCain -- or even who worked for him -- seemed to believe that McCain had a chance of beating George W. Bush for the Republican nomination, much less of becoming president. The perception began to change shortly after lunch on primary day. The first exit polls came in around 1:00, and immediately caused mild panic at McCain headquarters. The data seemed to show McCain with as much as a 20-point lead over Bush. McCain strategists assumed that the numbers must be ridiculous, and worried that a subsequent 5-point victory (widely considered optimistic the day before) would look like failure by comparison.


As it turned out, McCain won the primary by 19 points. CNN declared him the winner at 7:00 P.M. Minutes later, Bush guru Karl Rove called McCain's hotel room to concede. John Weaver, McCain's political director, scoffed when he heard Rove was on the line. Weaver detests Rove, and was irritated by what he considered the arrogance of the call. "Tell him that consultants don't concede to candidates," Weaver said to an aide. "Have Bush call himself." Bush soon did.


Twelve hours later, members of McCain's communications staff held their daily conference call. Today's topic: What do we do now? The conversation continued until someone asked, "Has anybody here ever been on a campaign that won New Hampshire?" For a moment there was silence, then laughter.


For McCain himself, there isn't much question what the next move is. A little before 9:00 A.M., the candidate is back on the bus and rolling through South Carolina. McCain made it to bed in Greenville at 5:00 in the morning, 24 hours after his day began in Nashua. An hour and a half after turning off the light, the phone rang. McCain couldn't immediately locate the source of the ringing and fumbled around his hotel room in the dark for a while until he found it. The phone turned out to be covered with buttons and immensely complicated to operate. By the time McCain finally pushed the right button, whoever it was had hung up.


McCain never went back to sleep. Exhaustion has made his eyes sensitive, and once on the bus he puts on his fabled sunglasses. In speeches, particularly when he talks about The Special Interests, McCain can come off as self-righteous. Catch him in his sunglasses and you realize he couldn't be. No one who took himself seriously would ever wear anything so dorky. Mike Murphy, McCain's message chief, has tried to prevent cameras from filming McCain when he has them on, and for the most part the effort has been successful. Unfortunately there's nothing Murphy can do about the food.


While traveling, McCain eats constantly, donuts mostly (Krispy Kremes, now that the campaign has arrived in the South), but also hamburgers and barbecue and whatever else aides pick up at events. This morning someone has shown up with a dozen sausage biscuits. The sides of the white cardboard container are dark and moist with grease. McCain balances the box on his knee, opens it and fishes out a biscuit. As he does, a crew from a local television station begins to set up for an interview. McCain takes off his sunglasses, but keeps the biscuit. While the reporter asks him questions about Social Security and tax cuts, McCain munches away, pausing only to wipe his mouth with a paper napkin.


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.