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As battle shifts to Michigan, Bush feels strong

John McCain, who needs the state to reinvigorate his campaign, keeps up the pressure.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2000


SOUTHFIELD, Mich. -- Another week, another election, another desperate candidate.

First John McCain absolutely had to win the New Hampshire primary Feb. 1 to prove he could challenge George W. Bush for the Republican nomination.

He won big.

Then Bush badly needed a comeback victory Saturday in South Carolina to reassure nervous supporters and to demonstrate to fundraisers that the $70-million they raised was not a bad investment.

He won convincingly.

Now McCain has to win Michigan on Tuesday to keep alive his hopes of a miracle on March 7, when more than a dozen states hold primaries and caucuses. He can't even commit to still being in the race when Florida votes March 14.

The stock market has fewer ups and downs than this.

Sunday, Bush was up.

"My spirits are still high," the Texas governor said in the snow outside Central Wesleyan Church in Holland. "We'll carry Michigan. I feel confident about it."

McCain's stock seemed ready to collapse even as he rallied voters at Michigan State University in East Lansing and in Grand Rapids. The Arizona senator remained combative, taking nothing back from Saturday night's concession speech where he all but called Bush a fraud for calling himself a reformer.

"In Texas anything goes," McCain said at a rally Sunday night in an airplane hanger in Grand Rapids. "You can give almost anyone you want any kind of money. Now he calls himself a reformer. If Gov. Bush is a reformer, I'm an astronaut."

While Bush continued to criticize McCain in TV ads, he tempered his own comments Sunday. McCain's vitriolic South Carolina speech remained the talk of both campaigns, but Bush said he still had not seen it.

"I'm told it was quite harsh," Bush said. "He can handle his business his way; I'm going to talk about what I'm going to do for America."

McCain is expected to easily win his home state of Arizona on Tuesday, but he needs Michigan as well to remain viable. A Detroit News poll Sunday showed Bush and McCain in a dead heat, but the survey ended two days before Bush won South Carolina.

The political dynamics are more favorable here for McCain than they were in South Carolina, where religious conservatives turned out heavily and favored Bush 2-1. The outcome once again depends on turnout in a state where Democrats and independents can vote in the Republican primary.

Bush reminded reporters at every opportunity Sunday that pundits had predicted a large turnout in South Carolina would mean victory for McCain. There was a record turnout, but the Texas governor easily won.

"That's what this party needs," he said at Lawrence Technological University outside Detroit. "This party needs somebody who can ignite our party and unite our party and excite our party."

Then he paused.

"Any other ites?" he asked.

The day after is always upbeat for the winner.

At the mid-afternoon stop at the university, a large crowd filled an atrium where supporters waved red, white and blue pompoms as Bush delivered his stump speech in a full shout.

Bush lashed out at Michigan lawyer Geoffrey Fieger, who represented suicide doctor Jack Kevorkian and who was the 1998 Democratic opponent of Bush's top Michigan supporter, Gov. John Engler. Fieger is airing radio ads blasting both governors for their support of civil justice reforms.

"John Engler and George W. Bush: dumb and dumber," the ad says.

While McCain rejects the attack, it is aimed at drawing Democrats and independents out to vote for the Arizona senator.

"There's nothing I can do except this," Bush told the crowd at the university. "We can rally our friends and neighbors. We can rally our kinds of folks to go to the polls to say to Kevorkian's lawyer, "you're not going to get to pick who the nominee of the Republican Party is.' "

But South Carolina left Bush with negatives as well as positives.

Rep. Peter King, R-New York, switched his support to McCain on Sunday. He said he could not tolerate Bush's visit to Bob Jones University, a conservative South Carolina school with a reputation for racial intolerance, including a ban on interracial dating, and a bias against Catholics.

Questions about King irritated Bush, who said his own beliefs should not be tied to his visit to the controversial university. He even pointed out that his younger brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is Catholic.

McCain, meanwhile, said he will not roll over for the Bush machine that is back in full gear.

"I've taken a few punches," the former Vietnam prisoner of war said. "I've crashed a few planes. I spent a few years in a hotel where there was no mint on the pillow. I know how to take a punch and I know how to fight back."

But Bush seemed to have moved on to another fight -- against the Clinton administration and the probable Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore.

Asked whether he was running against McCain or Gore now, Bush only smiled.

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