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McCain achieves credibility with impressive win

John McCain's big New Hampshire primary victory over George W. Bush establishes the Arizona senator as a credible challenger for the Republican presidential nomination and will force immediate changes in Bush's campaign tactics, GOP strategists said Tuesday night.

The Texas governor, enthroned months ago as the strong favorite for the nomination on the basis of his many endorsements and his bulging bank account, has not yet performed up to expectations at the ballot box. He defeated publisher Steve Forbes, who never has been elected to public office, by only 11 points in the Jan. 24 Iowa caucuses and now has been humbled in his first confrontation with McCain, who bypassed Iowa.

As Bush and McCain both headed for South Carolina, whose Feb. 19 primary looms as the next major test for the GOP rivals, Bush strategist Karl Rove said there will be no change in the governor's message, but much more of the personal campaigning and question-and-answer sessions that worked so well for McCain in this state.

The New Hampshire results, GOP observers said, were also bad news for Forbes and two other trailing candidates, anti-abortion activists Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer. Bauer, with his second straight fifth-place finish, told reporters he would reassess his campaign on Wednesday, hinting he may drop out of the race.

But the focus Tuesday night was on Bush and McCain in what many strategists said has become essentially a two-man race. Bush meets Forbes _ but not McCain _ next Tuesday in the Delaware primary, and his managers are hoping that a victory there may effectively end the campaign of the man whose personal wealth makes him the only candidate able to compete with the record $69-million treasury Bush has accumulated.

Neutral observers like Republican pollster Ed Goeas quickly cautioned that McCain's win here, while necessary to sustain what appeared to be a long-shot bid, should not be exaggerated. "It's John McCain's day," Goeas said, "but it's still likely to be Bush's year."

A critical question is whether McCain can convert his strong showing here into new financial support. His top fundraisers, gathered here, hit the phones even before the results were announced publicly, and also launched a new mass-mail appeal. At the end of 1999, McCain had only $1.5-million on hand and was expecting $6.2-million in federal matching funds. Unless new contributions flood in, he might be handcuffed in the big-state primaries that still lie ahead.

While his fundraisers huddled, McCain immediately shifted his sights to the South Carolina primary, flying off for a rally this morning in the state that his campaign manager, Rick Davis, said will be the focus of the senator's attention for 12 or 13 of the next 18 days.

Although McCain has the backing of two members of the House delegation, the bulk of the state's GOP establishment, led by former governors Carroll Campbell and David Beasley, is solidly behind Bush. Rove predicted that South Carolina will provide a "fire wall" of protection for the Texas governor, just as it did in 1992 and 1996, when unexpectedly strong showings in the New Hampshire primary by Pat Buchanan temporarily derailed the nomination strategies of two eventual winners, first President George Bush and then Sen. Bob Dole. "Those folks (in South Carolina) are not prone to pay much attention to the New Hampshire results," Rove said.

But Davis said Tuesday night that the "bounce" McCain now is likely to get from media coverage of his New Hampshire victory "could put us within 12 or 13 points of Bush" by the beginning of next week _ and Rove said he would not be surprised if that happened, at least temporarily, "before we open it up again." The most recent public polls in South Carolina give the Texas governor a 20-point margin.

"I expect a spirited, hard-fought campaign in South Carolina," Davis said, "and I'm glad we have almost three weeks to work the state."

But Bush is equally eager to move the race several hundred miles south of this snowy state. Today, he will visit Bob Jones University, spiritual headquarters of the fundamentalist movement whose adherents make up a significant part of the South Carolina electorate.

Rove insisted that Bush will not change the message he used in Iowa and New Hampshire, emphasizing a large tax cut and a "compassionate conservative" approach to domestic issues. Rove predicted McCain "will try to move to the right in South Carolina," emphasizing such issues as a ban on Internet pornography.

Rove said that even before the New Hampshire results were in hand, the national staff and Bush's South Carolina supporters had started talking about changes in the governor's campaign. "They want us to do more events where he answers questions," Rove said _ in effect, emulating the town meetings that proved so effective for McCain in New Hampshire. He also said that Bush will go directly after McCain's support from veterans, who make up a bigger share of the South Carolina electorate than in any other state, with his ex-military backers forming "a Bush honor brigade" that will accompany the candidate throughout the state.

New Hampshire proved to be a disappointment for Forbes, who hoped to emerge as the preferred choice of both economic and social conservatives, by promising to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and limit access to abortion. His campaign manager Bill Dal Col had boldly predicted that McCain and Forbes would drive Bush into third place in New Hampshire and even suggested that Forbes might win here.

McCain is skipping the Delaware primary, just as he ignored the Jan. 24 Iowa caucuses. But after a speech to the California Republican convention, McCain will stop off in Michigan at the beginning of next week. The Michigan primary is Feb. 22.