The religio-politician Pat Robertson, host of TV's Hour of Smarm, took to the airwaves Sunday to peddle the Bush campaign's vast-conspiracy theory.
As he explained it on Face the Nation, "people allied with Gore" were encouraging Democrats and independents to vote for John McCain in the South Carolina primary next Saturday. Why? Because "they consider him a weaker candidate than Gov. Bush."
Never mind polls showing that Vice President Al Gore now defeats George W. Bush. Never mind how John McCain now trounces Democrat Gore in the same polls. Just as candidate Hillary (Fry the killers!) No-Last-Name demonstrates, vast-conspiracy theorists need not be encumbered by facts.
But the Lord works in mysterious ways. In cooking up its cockamamie explanation for McCain's attractiveness to voters across the political spectrum, religio-pols expose the fear of Republican elders: that the dread "they" _ all those starry-eyed amateurs and reformist outsiders _ may take over "our thing."
As a result, conservatives have to confront the group with the old "GOP Death Wish." That clubby set of single-issue power brokers prefers to float out to sea in a Viking's funeral than to present a candidate who can appeal across party lines and energize swing voters.
Unlike these old-line pressure groupies to whom campaign finance reform is anathema, the Republican rank and file _ not to mention GOP House members _ seeks a likely winner to bear the party standard.
That seeming electability is what made Bush so attractive at first. But without that assurance of victory, his supporters are defecting. They are not afflicted with the GOP death wish that would make them masters of a wasteland. These Republicans are not satisfied with a winner in July's convention; they want a winner in November's election.
To them, McCain now holds out the exciting prospect that Bush once offered. That's why so much frantic bet-hedging is going on behind the scenes. And that's why the panicked power brokers of yesteryear are preparing this vast-conspiracy excuse for strong showings by McCain in South Carolina and Michigan: It's the devil (in the form of those tricky Democrats and independents) who's doing it.
In his devilish way, goes this weird construct, Beelzebub is manipulating the GOP to pick the nominee easiest for Gore to beat. Thus, all polls formerly believed in so devoutly are now to be despised. Moreover _ here comes the need for an even longer leap of non-faith _ Gore is eager to debate the pushover McCain and trembles at the thought of debating the slashing Bush.
Hence, loathed talk-show-spinning! Nothing so corrupts a campaign's credibility as insistence on the opposite of what everyone knows to be true.
The truth is that McCain is now much more likely than Bush to defeat Democrat Gore. The question is whether Bush can change that growing perception in the next few weeks _ not by tearing down McCain, which would ultimately be self-defeating, but by building up himself.
The paradox is that Bush has been becoming a better candidate even as his campaign has been getting worse. It's a pleasure to see him grow before our eyes: no more cocky smirks, no fear of being blindsided, no dismaying hesitancy on foreign-policy answers. He needed not just preparation but the shock of personal adversity.
At the same time, his strategists have evidently decided to win the nomination at the cost of the election. Not only is their heavy tax-cutting a year out of joint, but putting his previously touted compassion in the freezer in favor of pandering to the likes of the Robertson power brokers is foolish.
In the post-Clinton era, authenticity is in; you can no longer stick your thumb in the moderate eye to capture the so-called "core" and then hope to lunge back to win the middle.
Tonight, before an audience of presumably well-behaved executives at Seawell's Restaurant in Columbia, S.C., McCain and Bush will debate. Larry King of CNN will moderate, which means the show will be freewheeling.
Who will best put himself and his ideas forward? Who will most effectively make the case against more Clinton-Gore? Contrariwise, who will snipe and pander?
Let's watch and see. This is getting good.
+ William Safire is a New York Times columnist. +
New York Times News Service