Looking to November

National | Anticlimactic Southern races set the stage for the two parties, but McCain remains a wild card

Issue: "The new slave trade," March 25, 2000

in Orlando, Fla. - What if you threw a party and no one came? Poll workers in six states had plenty of time to ponder that age-old question on March 14 as they sat in church fellowship halls and hotel meeting rooms, waiting for voters to show up. Super Tuesday, when voters across the South go to the polls en masse, used to be the A-list party of the primary season. But this year Mega Tuesday came along a week earlier, eliminating the serious challengers in both parties. That made Super Tuesday a mere formality, strictly zzzz-list. George W. Bush and Al Gore did show up, but they were ready to rumble, not party. In a week of escalating rhetoric, they traded jabs on health care, ethics, taxes-even IQ. In his Super Tuesday victory speech, Mr. Bush said of his rival, "He can't distance himself from the president when, for eight years, he's served as cheerleader-in-chief." After checking his own name on the ballot in his home state of Tennessee, Mr. Gore told reporters that the primary season had produced "a choice between keeping prosperity going or going back to the Bush-Quayle days of gigantic budget deficits and paralyzed democracy." Whatever the choice represented, it was, at least, narrowed down to two options. After Tuesday's voting in Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Louisiana, both Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore had secured enough delegates to lock up their parties' nominations. In the Democratic race, with 2,170 needed to nominate, Mr. Gore had an estimated 2,505. Mr. Bush's estimated count stood at 1,093, which was 59 more than he needed to win. The suspense-free race led to record low turnout in places like Florida, where only18 percent of voters cast their ballots. Poll workers at the Four Points Hotel near Orlando airport munched doughnuts and worked crossword puzzles as they waited for voters to trickle in. Fewer than 150 showed up all day, despite a hotly contested mayoral race. "It's kind of hard to get motivated," admitted one woman as she left the polling place. She tossed aside the "I voted" sticker on her way out; no one else in her office would be wearing one, she explained. With an eye on the general election, both candidates campaigned hard in Florida. The "solid South," a Republican stronghold since Ronald Reagan's first victory in 1980, may be eroding. Mr. Gore says he could win the Sunshine State, even though Mr. Bush's brother is governor. A recent Orlando Sentinel poll showed the two candidates in a statistical dead heat in Florida, the fourth largest electoral prize and a state once regarded as a sure thing for Mr. Bush. But that was before Mr. McCain's attacks took their toll on the Texas governor's image. The reform message was powerful here, and one in five Floridians voted for Mr. McCain even though he was no longer a candidate. Never one to miss a political bandwagon, the vice president jumped aboard the reform theme almost as soon as Mr. McCain left the race. Just before the primaries, Mr. Gore went to Minnesota seeking the blessing of Gov. Jesse Ventura, who was the highest elected official of the Reform Party until he changed his affiliation last month. Though Mr. Ventura stood on the platform as the vice president appealed to Reform voters, he made clear that he wasn't endorsing Mr. Gore. "I don't campaign for anyone but myself," he noted. But would he campaign for Mr. McCain, who still has not endorsed his Republican rival? Rumors continued to swirl that the Arizona senator would jump to the Reform Party or make an independent bid for the White House. Gov. Ventura said that decision was "totally the senator's business," and that he was not attempting to woo Mr. McCain into a third-party campaign. The two haven't spoken since before the March 7 primaries, he said, and a McCain spokesman insisted "there are no current plans for a meeting with the governor." With the senator on vacation and his media fan club disbanding, voters turned their attention to the major party candidates. A Gallup poll showed that most McCain supporters were drifting to the Bush camp: McCain Republicans chose Mr. Bush 80 percent to 14 percent over Mr. Gore, and among McCain independents, Mr. Bush led 46 percent to 37 percent. Not that Mr. Gore is giving up on those voters. Picking up the anti-religious club that Mr. McCain had laid aside, he warned darkly that Mr. Bush was beholden to Christian conservatives and that a Bush administration would give Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell a "working majority" on the Supreme Court.

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