Hidden amidst this week's political spinning are these facts: McCain received support from all religious groups, including Catholics and Protestants. He even finished second with the religious right, according to network exit polls.
The key, it appears, was McCain's use of moral issues. But not the kind of moral issues we're used to hearing about: abortion, gay rights and school prayer. No, McCain stressed ideas like integrity, courage and straight talk. These are important matters to religious people.
Meanwhile, New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley's surprisingly narrow loss to Vice President Al Gore in the Democratic primary also stemmed from questions of character. Gore, it appears, was dogged by President Clinton's perceived moral failings.
Character issues cut across traditional religious voting blocs and may end up creating new coalitions. Such coalitions have the capacity to remake presidential politics, as voters with different moral perspectives place their trust in a particular candidate.
If McCain can sustain such coalitions, they could power him to the Republican nomination and into the White House. But at the very least, in the short run, McCain's character-oriented campaign will force Bush into a strategic dilemma: should he try to match McCain and risk giving up core Republican constituencies-such as the religious right--to Steve Forbes, or should he move to the right, and risk his general election chances?
The early indications from South Carolina, the next big primary state, are that Bush has decided to move right--at least in this conservative Southern state.
Bradley was less successful in Hew Hampshire, but he won a majority of those who disapproved of Clinton as a person and nearly three-quarters of his support from voters who disapproved of Clinton's job performance.
Perhaps the most startling result of the New Hampshire primary was McCain's performance among groups that are often at odds with one another. The exit polls reveal he won 49 percent of Catholic, 51 percent of Protestant, and 54 percent of secular voters. In contrast, Bush received less than one-third of the votes of these groups.
As in the Iowa caucuses Bush continued to do best among self-identified members of the religious right, receiving 37 percent of their vote. But it is important to note that McCain finished second, taking 25 percent, ahead of publisher Steve Forbes (15 percent), ambassador Alan Keyes (19 percent), and conservative activist Gary Bauer (3 percent)-all of whom staked their campaigns on the support of religious conservatives.
McCain also won among voters who stressed "moral values" in their voting decision and nearly broke even with Bush among those who gave abortion top priority.
All these figures suggest that Bush maintained a tenuous grip on core Republican constituencies. But McCain won among all other groups, fueled by independent voters, who participated in record numbers.
This outcome stands in sharp contrast to the 1996 New Hampshire primary, when conservative Catholic commentator Pat Buchanan won with 27 percent of the vote, drawing heavily on religious right voters, Catholics, and opponents of abortion. The 1996 front-runner, Kansas Senator Bob Dole, finished a close second, with relatively little support from religious conservatives. In fact, Dole did not receive a plurality of any religious voting bloc.
The other GOP candidates, Forbes, Keyes and Bauer, were also big losers in New Hampshire this year. Forbes and Keyes performed only slightly better than in 1996, trailing far behind Bush. Bauer only got one percent of the vote, which caused him to drop out of the race. Although these candidates received support from voters concerned with abortion and the religious right, their combined percentage of the vote (20 percent) was less than Buchanan's 1996 performance.
These results may tempt some observers to conclude that the religious right is fading as an electoral force in national politics.
However, the percentage of Republican voters who identified with the religious right was the same in 2000 and 1996, some 16 percent of the total. Because of the record turnout, more religious conservatives participated this year than four years ago. Thus, the difference was not in the numbers of religious conservatives at the polls, but the candidate they supported.
In 2000, they backed Bush-and, perhaps surprisingly, McCain. And that indicates McCain won by transcending most of the traditional divisions among Republicans on the basis of character.