White House 2000: You Want Outsiders? We Got Outsiders

They loathe Washington. Their favorite word is "reform," as in chucking the tax code and limiting special-interest money in politics. They're mapping insurgent campaigns--nimble guerrilla strikes that substitute big attitudes and bigger ideas for fat media budgets.

Meet Arizona's John McCain, lone-wolf GOP senator, and former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, restless New Democrat. These guys want to be your President. No, seriously.

McCain is a quirky populist-conservative who blasts the federal bureaucracy even as he seeks to expand its power to fight smoking. Bradley is a wonkish idealist who reveres the New Economy--but also frets about income inequality. When they floated Presidential bids recently, cognoscenti snickered. But will they be laughing in 2000?

The odds of McCain or Bradley breaking through seem remote today. But that's only if your 2000 scenario smugly assumes a dead-cinch duel between Vice-President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush. With voters sickened by Washington's sleaze wars, self-styled outsiders could catch fire. If you don't think so, just repeat "Governor Ventura" a few times.

REFORMERS. Bradley and McCain aren't alone in running against Sin City. Publisher Steve Forbes is back with his "millionaire populist" shtick. And backers of the newest GOP Presidential wannabe, Elizabeth H. Dole, say even this grande dame of the Watergate complex will cast herself as a nontraditionalist. "Elizabeth's candidacy will scream `outsider,"' says former Bob Dole pollster Tony Fabrizio, "because she's not part of the [male] club."

When it comes to antipolitics, McCain and Bradley are in a league by themselves. The Arizonan butted heads with fellow Republicans over his pork-barrel hit lists, the tax hikes in his antismoking bill, and his calls for campaign-finance reform. "People are looking for somebody who's independent," he says, "somebody who will combat inside-the-Beltway interests who have too much power."

Former Knicks star Bradley was never comfortable in his senator's wingtips. Before he called it quits in 1996 by famously declaring that "politics is broken," he riled conventional Democrats with his commitment to free trade and tax reform. "I'm going to talk about `people issues,"' he says, citing education, health reform, and child care among them.

Pollster Frank Luntz calls them "`the Un-Colas'--guys who consciously run unconventional campaigns." But skeptics aren't awed by the populist fizz, citing the traditional woes of mavericks--lack of money and a grassroots organization.

The inside-outsiders are working on that. McCain has hired operatives from the '96 Presidential campaign of Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.). Fund-raising whiz Carla Eudy is his top catch. McCain's targets: nostalgic Reagan voters, execs who admire his stellar war record, and Sun Belt iconoclasts. Bradley has always been boffo in the boardroom. He appeals to Northeastern moderates, independents, and Jewish voters. His financial angel, Salomon Smith Barney Managing Director Louis B. Susman, will plug Big Bill into Wall Street's big bucks.

The "in" crowd's take? "I like McCain and respect Bradley, but I'm dubious," shrugs GOP theorist William Kristol. "Their supposed radicalism titillates the Establishment, but it really pales next to Ronald Reagan's bold conservative agenda."

If Kristol's right, Bradley and McCain will still be outsiders on Election Day. If he's wrong, one of these mavericks could be tethering a white horse outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue--and chuckling at the myopia of the chattering classes.

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