While the success of real-people politicos McCain and Bush has been attributed to popular resentment for the status quo, the media is probably as responsible for the phenomenon as anybody. By June the races in both parties appeared to be over. Bush had scared off nearly every serious challenger with his immense war chest, which then stood at $35 million more than the rest of the Republican presidential candidates combined, and by far the largest pre-election-year sum ever raised by a candidate. Gore, meanwhile, was keeping ahead of Bradley by using the many advantages of the vice presidency to raise more than twice as much money.
But then Bradley and McCain surged. In part this was simply because reporters were desperately looking around for something, anything, to write about. "The media, whether they realize it or not, do try to build a race," says TIME political correspondent Jay Carney. But they also had a compelling story to tell, that of two self-professed political mavericks who enchanted reporters simply by being positioned as the polar opposites of the front-runners: real, spontaneous and full of convictions, rather than cautious and poll-driven. The press was hooked, and that put the two underdogs squarely back in the race. "Free media or as the campaigns like to call it, 'earned media' helps cut a well-financed candidate's advantage," says Carney. "For McCain and Bradley it's key. And there's no candidate like John McCain in terms of media accessibility. He's an open book." During an increasingly long election cycle, that kind of candor is catnip to reporters. The results: Since September, McCain's "unfamiliarity" rating in nationwide polls has dropped 20 points to 31 percent, and his national approval rating is now over 50 percent. Lesser but still positive gains are seen in the Bradley camp.