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A winning message

John McCain, with his GOP win, and Bill Bradley, with a close second-place Democratic finish, proved in New Hampshire that authentic messages of character and reform can be powerful weapons in the race for president.

In New Hampshire, a powerful message can overcome money and party machinery. Arizona Sen. John McCain proved that Tuesday with his stunningly decisive presidential primary victory over Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the $67-million man of the Republican establishment. In the one-on-one environment of New England town meetings, McCain's emphasis on personal character and political reform resonated with voters who resist being spoon-fed their presidential candidates by the usual party fixers.

Bill Bradley, who terrifies Democratic Party apparatchiks almost as much as McCain does Republican insiders, ran a close second to Vice President Al Gore by emphasizing similar themes of character and reform. Gore and his handlers appeared giddy with their narrow victory Tuesday night, but they have as much reason as the Bush camp to be nervous about the weaknesses their challengers have exposed.

Unfortunately, the New Hampshire primary marks the end of the person-to-person phase of the 2000 presidential campaign. The pace quickens as the campaigns move to bigger states, and voters will be bombarded by the candidates' packaged advertising rather than by the candidates themselves. That works to the great advantage of Bush and Gore, who have locked up most of their parties' regulars and do better the less they are seen and heard in person. Bradley is on fairly even footing with Gore in money but not in organization. And McCain is at a huge disadvantage to Bush on both counts.

Bush and Gore are still prohibitive favorites to win their respective nominations. However, McCain and Bradley are dominating the independent vote _ which will be crucial in November. If Bush and Gore react to the New Hampshire results by escalating their attacks on their primary opponents, they may lose any chance of broadening their appeal for the general election.

Both anointed front-runners should try a little candor instead. Bush's asinine attempts to paint McCain as a liberal crypto-Democrat have backfired. If anything, McCain's public record is to the right of Bush's, particularly on most social issues. Bush began this campaign by distancing himself from Republican hard-liners in Congress and emphasizing his vision of "compassionate conservatism." More recently, though, he has been pandering to party ideologues on tax cuts and abortion. He would be better served pointing out McCain's skimpy resume on education, health care and other core issues on which his own campaign has developed thorough positions.

In the Democratic contest, Gore has spent more time making distorted criticism of Bradley's health care plan than making a positive case for his own candidacy. Like Bush, he is sneeringly dismissive of campaign-finance reform. And he has embraced and rejected enough wardrobes, personalities and debating points to fill half a dozen campaigns.

The appeal of McCain and Bradley transcends ideologies and issue positions. McCain overcame all of Bush's institutional advantages because voters in dozens of New Hampshire town meetings saw a genuine, unguarded candidate who was eager to answer their questions head-on _ even eager to give them answers they didn't want to hear. Bradley, taking on a sitting vice president and burdened by revived concerns about a chronic heart condition, held his own by projecting a similar authenticity. By comparison, Bush and Gore have been cautious and programmed.

Bush, who brought his father to New Hampshire on the eve of the primary, appeared diminished in the former president's presence. Meanwhile, Gore has yet to escape the shadow of the current president. These two 50-something men are still trying to establish their adult identities. That's a bad sign in a candidate, much less in a president.