Cover Story

On to the Republican primaries

No doubt about it now: After his Michigan rebound following a hard-fought loss in South Carolina, John McCain is the clear preference of Democrats who vote in Republican primaries. But with GOP-only contests coming up in delegate-rich states like New York and California, McCain is at a disadvantage. But former frontrunner George W. Bush is facing the toughest fight of his political life

Issue: "Bush: Crunch time," March 4, 2000

in Michigan & South Carolina - On a sun-drenched morning in Mesa, Ariz., 50 supporters of George W. Bush gathered at the Trinity Baptist Church to canvass a randomly chosen street. Six days before the Arizona primary, the Bush team had zeroed in on this small Phoenix suburb for its high concentration of Mormons, megachurches, and senior citizens. Among the pavement-pounders were Arizona Gov. Jane Hull and Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, himself a Mormon, who told reporters that "anything less than a 25-point margin will be a victory for the Bush campaign." There would have been more volunteers, they explained, but campaign organizers didn't send out notices until 5 p.m. the night before. Eager to put a dent in the expected victory margin for favorite son John McCain, the small army of Bush volunteers invaded rows of orange trees, pebbly lawns, and modest stucco homes. "I'm your governor," said Gov. Hull to a bushy haired woman who refused to open her door more than an inch. That seemed to make no difference to the woman. Peeking suspiciously through a tiny crack, she finally granted permission to post a Bush sign in her front yard. "Let's hope they were organized enough to bring a hammer," said Gov. Hull under her breath to Gov. Leavitt. They weren't. Standing beside his white pickup truck, a neighbor watched with interest as volunteers discussed what they could use instead. At last, the man whipped out a metal shovel and handed it to Gov. Leavitt, who posed for a convenient photo op while nailing a three-foot sign with the six-foot shovel. That photo-op could serve as a snapshot of the retooled and reinvented Bush campaign. In the wake of his disastrous loss in New Hampshire, the Texas governor changed his campaign theme, shortened his speeches, took questions from voters at campaign appearances, and began appealing overtly to religious conservatives-a constituency he had once kept at arm's length. The results were mixed. Mr. Bush crushed his rival in the South Carolina primary on Feb. 19, avoiding back-to-back losses that could have doomed his campaign. But just three days later, Mr. McCain won contests in both Michigan and Arizona, crushing the hopes of Bush strategists who longed for a quick knockout. While the Arizona race was never in serious doubt-Mr. McCain won his home state by 24 percentage points-Michigan loomed as a major question mark. As the first big, industrial state to hold balloting this year, it was viewed as a major prize by both campaigns. Gov. John Engler had boasted that his state was a firewall made of asbestos, guaranteed to stop any insurgent's challenge to Mr. Bush. On Tuesday, the "McCain majority"-made up of independents and Democrats free to vote in Michigan's open Republican primary-torched the Engler firewall. The first sign of trouble came at Mr. Bush's "victory party" in Detroit's Westin Hotel. As supporters milled about waiting for results, Mr. Engler faced a bank of television cameras on the terrace level above. Two aides crouched on either side of him, mouthing words across his belly and making notes while the cameras rolled overhead. Without a microphone, the governor's remarks weren't audible to the crowd. But he wasn't smiling much. Reporters near enough to catch a few words heard one phrase repeated over and over: "borrowed Democratic voters." Borrowed or not, Democratic and independent voters cast more ballots than Republicans did in this Republican primary-ballots that swung the election to Mr. McCain. While Mr. Bush carried two-thirds of the Republican vote, his opponent won 70 percent among independent voters and nearly 90 percent among Democrats. Analysts saw much of the non-Republican vote as an effort to embarrass Mr. Engler, whom Democrats here despise. The governor's political opponents, from Detroit mayor Dennis Archer to Kevorkian lawyer Jeffrey Fieger, weighed in with speeches and radio ads. Mr. McCain followed up with a postcard mailing reminding Democrats that they could vote in the Republican primary-then switch back to their own party. Mr. McCain's win left the Bush forces dispirited. Key supporters and donors, gathered for a private party on the 11th floor of the Westin before the polls closed, toasted each other confidently. As 8 p.m. neared, they began drifting downstairs to get the official announcement. "Let's go hear from Vice President Engler!" one man exclaimed as he downed a last few swigs of beer and headed for the elevators. Ninety minutes later he was back, nursing another beer and wondering what went wrong. "This was supposed to be it," he said. "Michigan was going to put him over the top. Now we've got an ugly fight on our hands." For Mr. McCain, the night was spoiled only by thoughts of what might have been. A win three days earlier in South Carolina would have given him a perfect record in contested primaries. Indeed, South Carolina was vital for both candidates. They spent unprecedented amounts of money in the state-more than six times as much as the two frontrunners spent in the Palmetto state in 1996-and taxed the goodwill of voters in a fight that many viewed as nasty and personal. The tone of the campaign was a function of its importance. After his 19-point drubbing in New Hampshire, Mr. Bush hastily reinvented himself, campaigning not as the anointed one, but as the annoyed one. He was annoyed that Mr. McCain had misrepresented the Bush tax-cut plan as draining money from Social Security. He was annoyed that Mr. McCain portrayed himself as a Washington outsider, despite 15 years in Congress and the chairmanship of one of the most powerful committees in the Senate. He was annoyed that Mr. McCain portrayed himself as the inventor of campaign finance reform, despite voting repeatedly to fund campaigns with taxpayer dollars. He was annoyed and he said so, again and again. The infamous smirk was gone, as was the aura of inevitability. Instead of taking off the final campaign day for sledding and bowling-as he'd done in New Hampshire-Mr. Bush logged a 16-hour day on Friday, barnstorming through four towns in the most conservative corner of the state. The fire marshal in Anderson, S.C., estimated that 1,800 people turned out for an afternoon rally at a local recreation center-the very site where perhaps 300 people had gathered a few days before for a McCain appearance. The music coming from the loudspeakers could have been an unintentional commentary on the Texas governor's state of mind. "I've been cheated, been mistreated," blared the Linda Ronstadt recording. "When will I be loved?" The mayor of Anderson broke in to announce that Mr. Bush was just moments away, and the crowd went wild. After a few cheers, the music resumed. This time it was Aretha Franklin singing, "Just a little bit, just a little bit, just a little respect." Love and respect certainly weren't coming from the media-not for Mr. Bush, at any rate. Throughout the closing days of the campaign, they continued their nearly uninterrupted lovefest for Mr. McCain. On Saturday, despite polls showing Mr. Bush had opened up a substantial lead, most analysts continued to insist, almost hopefully, that a large turnout would doom the governor. That morning, all five of the largest daily newspapers in the country featured Mr. McCain's smiling face on page one. Mr. Bush got one front-page photo-and he was scowling. But the media entourage aboard the Straight Talk Express-reveling in their access to Mr. McCain and laughing at his famous off-color jokes-missed the important story: Bush voters in South Carolina, unlike their counterparts in Iowa and New Hampshire, were energized and excited. An unexpectedly strong challenge from the left mobilized the state's conservative Republicans, who were determined to stop the McCain insurgency. Jules and Louise Stubbs were typical. On Friday morning, sitting in one of the Waffle House restaurants that seem omnipresent along South Carolina's interstate highways, they discussed Saturday's vote in somber terms. "I think it's awful, I really do," said Mrs. Stubbs in a soft drawl, referring to the McCain campaign. "We've been around and we've seen a lot," explained her husband, who spent 37 years working for the government. "We've heard all the speeches, and we don't think [McCain] is sincere." In a sentiment voiced over and over again by voters around the state, the Stubbses said they hoped to play a part in ending Mr. McCain's quest. "My son never votes, but I'm going to try my best get him to the polls tomorrow," Mrs. Stubbs said. "Bush needs every vote he can get. I'd hate to see McCain win this." At the sound of Mr. McCain's name, waitress Rena Steadman wrinkled her nose. "I don't like him," she offered, unsolicited. "He said Bush was no better than Clinton. That just ain't right. I'm voting for Bush." That kind of anti-McCain sentiment torpedoed hopes that a high turnout would confound the polls. Turnout on Saturday did set a record, doubling the 267,000 votes in the 1996 primary. But Republican loyalists, not the Democrats and independent voters that Mr. McCain was relying on, fueled the increase. Those Republicans voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Bush: 70 percent to 25 percent. Among the 50,000 or so Democrats who crossed over to vote in the Republican primary, Mr. McCain garnered 80 percent of the vote. Even Alan Keyes, running to the right of Bush, was swamped by the anti-McCain surge. Speaking to a crowd of some 500 in Columbia on Thursday, Mr. Keyes barely mentioned the Texas governor, but blasted Mr. McCain repeatedly. "John McCain is not pro-life," he told the cheering crowd. "Any pro-life American who votes for John McCain has betrayed our cause." On Saturday, however, many conservatives seemed to consider a vote for Mr. Keyes to be a vote for Mr. McCain. Despite having the right wing all to himself following the exits of Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes, Mr. Keyes actually performed worse in South Carolina, where he took 4 percent of the vote, than in New Hampshire, where he took 6 percent. The McCain challenge drove conservatives overwhelmingly to Mr. Bush, despite their initial reservations about his candidacy. In the much-ballyhooed "conservative primary," the Texas governor emerged as the surprise winner. But in an election year full of surprises, conservative credentials alone won't secure the nomination. With his wins in Michigan and Arizona, Mr. McCain turned his attention to Washington's Feb. 29 primary, where voters tend to be independent and moderate, much like those in New Hampshire. Though Virginia votes the same day, the McCain campaign has largely written that state off as too conservative for him to win. The delegate count is close enough that a split in Washington and Virginia would do little to establish a clear frontrunner. Thus, the nomination will probably be decided on March 7, when primaries in 12 states apportion 588 delegates-over half of the 1,034 delegates needed to win. Mr. McCain hopes to sweep the New England states on that day, adding 131 votes to his total. But the real focus will be on California and New York, where 263 delegates are up for grabs. In both those states, only the votes of registered Republicans will count. With independents barred from participating, Mr. McCain will have to convince Republican Party regulars that he's one of them. The effort began with his victory speech in Arizona: "I want to make a special plea tonight to my fellow Republicans," Mr. McCain said in an address described by an Associated Press analyst as containing "some of the oddest rhetoric ever uttered in victory by a major party contender for the White House." What made it so "odd"? Traditionally, politicians vie for victory within their parties, then make a broader appeal for votes outside their parties; in Mr. McCain's case, the opposite is true. "Don't fear this campaign, my fellow Republicans, join it," said Mr. McCain. "Join it." Even though the race now will focus almost exclusively on Republicans-which is to Mr. Bush's advantage-the early predictions of a Bush "coronation" seem a distant memory. He now finds himself fighting for every delegate against a determined, well-financed challenger. By the end of Mega Tuesday, his vaunted $70 million war chest will likely be history as he throws all of his resources into one big, must-win day. He may even want to keep that shovel-not just to hammer in yard signs, but to dig himself out of deep trouble.

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