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McCain scores landslide; Gore holds off Bradley

McCain scoops up 49 percent of New Hampshire's GOP vote to Bush's 31 percent.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 2000


NASHUA, N.H. -- The state that loves underdogs hugged one and nudged another back to life.

Arizona Sen. John McCain ambushed George W. Bush on Tuesday in snow-covered New Hampshire, stunning the Texas governor in the nation's first presidential primary and silencing talk of a Republican coronation for the son of the former president.

The state's notoriously independent-minded voters also revived another long shot.

While Al Gore narrowly defeated Bill Bradley in the Democratic primary, it was a fairly close call for the vice president and should enable the former New Jersey senator to remain competitive into March.

McCain led Bush by an astounding 49 percent to 31 percent in the Republican primary with 76 percent of the precincts reporting. Publisher Steve Forbes was a distant third with 13 percent, followed by former Ambassador Alan Keyes with 7 percent and conservative activist Gary Bauer with 1 percent.

"My friends, a wonderful New Hampshire campaign has come to an end," McCain told cheering supporters Tuesday night, "but a great national crusade has just begun."

In the Democratic primary, Gore led Bradley by 52 percent to 47 percent with 80 percent of the precincts reporting.

"You ain't seen nothing yet," Gore told supporters. "We've just begun to fight."

But the Democratic race remains much the same as Bradley continues to push the vice president without pulling even.

The Republican contest, though, has been spiced with doses of excitement and seeds of doubt about the front-runner.

Bush still has the money and the national organization. McCain wakes up this morning with momentum and a shot at another upset on Feb. 19 in South Carolina.

Republicans

McCain bet everything on New Hampshire and won big.

When CNN declared him the winner shortly after 7 p.m., two of his sons jumped up and down in the McCain family's hotel room, the eighth-floor presidential suite. McCain's wife, Cindy, raised her left hand to her mouth and shed a few tears.

"It really happened," she said.

Added McCain: "You can't help but be amazed by the size of this."

McCain skipped the Iowa caucuses, spent 71 days campaigning in New Hampshire and held 114 town meetings over a year in a place where voters demand direct contact with candidates. They were unscripted, free-flowing affairs where McCain would answer any question from anyone.

As a war hero and former Vietnam prisoner of war, McCain has a compelling personal story. Supporters frequently ask for autographs in his bestselling book, Faith of My Fathers, which chronicles his own military experiences as well as those of his father and grandfather.

McCain also offered a message that played well in New Hampshire, where the state parties are not particularly powerful. Amid his jokes and jibes, he pledged to reform campaign fundraising, the tax code, the military and education. He vowed to spend most of the budget surplus on shoring up Social Security and paying down the federal debt instead of on tax cuts.

"We have sent a powerful message to Washington that change is coming," McCain said Tuesday night.

The themes attracted Republicans as well as independents, who could vote in either primary. While McCain did well among independents as expected, he led Bush even among Republicans. He also led among men, women, conservatives and every other group analyzed by exit polls.

Bush focused on the Republican establishment. He brought in his parents. He touted endorsements from Elizabeth Dole and Jack Kemp. He claimed McCain sounded more like President Clinton and Gore than a conservative Republican.

The criticism didn't stick. Voters favored McCain's emphasis on reducing federal debt over Bush's large tax cuts.

While Bush became a more aggressive campaigner and sounded more confident in the final days, McCain exposed some weaknesses. Bush did not perform particularly well in debates, while McCain told voters that he does not need on-the-job training.

Despite Tuesday's defeat, Bush still has a considerable advantage over his nearest rival. He has raised $68.7-million compared to McCain's modest $13.7-million, an overall lead nationally and an enormous organization.

But Tuesday night's victory allows McCain to continue to play. He has several fundraisers scheduled over the next several days, including one over the Internet.

Next up is the Feb. 19 primary in South Carolina, a conservative state where McCain has closed the gap but still trails Bush by 20 points. Three days after that are Republican primaries in McCain's home state of Arizona and in Michigan, where Bush is ahead.

While Bush plays multiple states at once, McCain focuses on them one at a time.

"New Hampshire has long been known as a bump in the road for front-runners, and this year is no exception," Bush said Tuesday night after congratulating McCain. "The road to the Republican nomination and the White House is a long road. Mine will go through all 50 states and I intend it to end at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave."

A win in New Hampshire does not guarantee the nomination. Pat Buchanan won the Republican primary here in 1996, but he lost to eventual GOP nominee Bob Dole in South Carolina. History does not dampen the McCain campaign's enthusiasm. In 90 minutes Tuesday night, the campaign raised $14,000 over its Web site.

"It starts everything," McCain consultant Mike Murphy said of the New Hampshire victory. "This is the first domino, and it's falling our way."

Before New Hampshire's polls closed, McCain's Straight Talk Express bus was being driven to South Carolina. It had logged more than 15,000 miles in New Hampshire.

Democrats

With Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary in the rearview mirror, the Democratic race now moves nationwide.

Gore and Bradley have five weeks to blanket the country before March 7, when 14 states hold primaries. They include such delegate-rich states as California, New York and Ohio. A half-dozen states, including Florida, follow March 14.

Both Gore and Bradley visit New York today, where Bradley is believed to have an advantage after starring with the New York Knicks. This week, both also will be in California, where Gore is ahead.

The two Democrats are about even in money. Gore has raised $29-million, just above Bradley's $27.7-million. Each of them also is expected to receive $11-million in federal matching money.

But Bradley needed a boost from the close race in New Hampshire even more than money.

"We have made a remarkable turnaround, but there is still a tough fight ahead," Bradley said Tuesday night. "We're smarter, we're better prepared and we're ready to continue the fight."

After losing badly in Iowa, the former New Jersey senator was forced to change tactics in New Hampshire and drift from his high-minded campaign that avoided attacks. He also faced repeated questions about his irregular heartbeat, which may have planted doubt in some voters' minds about his fitness.

Beginning in last week's debate, Bradley attacked Gore's credibility on abortion rights and raised the 1996 campaign fundraising scandal. He didn't directly call the vice president a liar, but he came awfully close.

In fact, Bradley's criticisms may come too late.

By the time he countered Gore, the vice president had blasted Bradley for days on end in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

Gore criticized Bradley's sweeping proposal for universal health care as too risky and too expensive. He said Bradley's plan would actually deprive poor people of health care and jeopardize Medicare for seniors.

At the same time, Gore found his own campaign voice and became more focused. He described himself as a fighter who would battle to improve education, protect the environment and keep the nation's economic boom rolling.

Gore became the first candidate to win contested races in both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Suddenly it was Bradley, not Gore, demanding weekly debates Tuesday night.

Bradley plans to make a campaign stop Friday in the Tampa Bay area, although the site is uncertain. Gore is expected to be in Florida next week.

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