George W: The First Sign of Fraying?

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Until recently, George W. Bush seemed like a Teflon candidate. Dirt such as accusations of youthful cocaine use refused to stick to him as he glided through the early stages of the Republican presidential nomination process. He even seemed to have a good shot at winning New York, a Democratic stronghold, and two weeks ago, in a tour of the state's minority neighborhoods, Bush was introduced at speaking engagements by Floyd Flake, a leading black Democrat. Bush also received a big boost earlier this month when New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Governor George Pataki, two Republicans with a sporadically contentious relationship, stood together in supporting his candidacy.

Then, Monday morning, a surprising blow came at the hands of a New York Republican power broker. Staten Island borough president Guy Molinari, who months earlier had thrown his weight behind the Texas governor, announced he would head up the New York campaign of Bush's chief GOP opponent, Arizona senator John McCain. Molinari has had close connections to Bush, having run his father's 1992 New York presidential campaign. Molinari was cryptic about the sudden switch, saying Bush did nothing to dissuade him but that McCain "is best able to continue the legacy of leadership of George Bush and Ronald Reagan."

Insiders say the about-face may be an attempt to embarrass Pataki, who is thought to be positioning himself as Bush's running mate and from whom Molinari has long been estranged. But Molinari's decision can also be seen as a sign that Bush's vague "compassionate conservative" campaign lacks substance, a view supported by a recent Reuters/Zogby poll, which found that only 39 percent of Republican primary voters said they knew enough about Bush to nominate him. Meanwhile, McCain, who has attached his flag firmly to the issue of campaign-finance reform, appears to be gathering some steam recent polls give him 21 percent support among primary voters in New Hampshire, up from 9 percent in April. While TIME political correspondent Michael Duffey dismisses the Molinari defection as virtually meaningless, he says McCain's campaign stance is showing signs of effectiveness. "What remains to be seen," he adds, "is whether he can make his campaign about issues other than campaign finance and his book about being a POW."