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McCain strikes back

DOUBLE VICTORY: Democrats, independents propel the senator to a win in Michigan over George W. Bush. His home state of Arizona gives him a landslide.

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2000


DETROIT -- Get the broom.

Sen. John McCain swept a Republican primary doubleheader Tuesday against George W. Bush, edging the Texas governor in Michigan and comfortably winning his home state of Arizona.

Victory was particularly sweet for McCain in Michigan, the first mega-state in the accelerated presidential primary season. Gov. John Engler and the rest of the state's Republican establishment vigorously campaigned for Bush, prompting McCain to compare himself to Luke Skywalker fighting to get out of the Death Star.

Tuesday night, he celebrated by waving a green toy laser gun popularized by the Star Wars movie.

Late Tuesday, McCain led Bush in Michigan by 50 percent to 44 percent with an enormous push from Democrats and independents who also could vote in the Republican primary. Former ambassador Alan Keyes was a distant third at 5 percent.

In Arizona, McCain comfortably led Bush by 60 percent to 36 percent. Keyes captured 3 percent of the vote. Although Arizona Gov. Jane Hull backed Bush, the outcome was never in doubt and Bush did not bother to campaign there in the final days.

"I will never, never forget this special night," McCain said in his victory speech Tuesday night in Arizona after reaching out to members of his own party. "Don't fear this campaign, fellow Republicans. Join it. Join it."

Despite winning three of the first four high-profile primaries, McCain remains the underdog against Bush in the fight for the Republican nomination. The Texas governor has twice as much money in his campaign account, a much larger national organization and more support among mainstream Republicans.

Still, the game becomes more interesting now.

McCain's dual victories Tuesday offer an opportunity for him to regain the momentum he won by upsetting Bush three weeks ago in New Hampshire, then lost by losing in South Carolina on Saturday. He hopes to use the latest wins to challenge Bush in California, New York and other targeted states on March 7, when a dozen states hold primaries and caucuses.

If McCain pulls off a few more upsets on the primary season's biggest day, Florida suddenly could play an important role in selecting the Republican nominee. Florida and Texas join a handful of other Southern states holding primaries on March 14, and both have governors named Bush. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush already has helped his older brother raise more than $4-million in the state.

The twin towers of Florida and Texas could swat down any McCain charge.

"His chances are still slim," David Rohde, a Michigan State University political science professor, said of McCain's prospects of winning the Republican nomination.

But they are better today with McCain's upset win in Michigan.

While Bush gives a major speech in California today, McCain will try to capitalize on his wins in the state of Washington, which holds its primary next week. McCain has all but ceded to Bush the primary in Virginia, which also is next week, but he may reconsider after Tuesday's wins.

The question of building momentum, though, is a tricky one.

McCain raised nearly $3-million over the Internet after his stunning New Hampshire win. Bush bounced back from his loss in New Hampshire with an impressive win in South Carolina on Saturday, but it did not help him when he came north to Michigan.

"When Bush wins a primary, that's what is expected," McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said. "People figure his stock is going to be high."

The Texas governor's stock could face another re-examination.

After the New Hampshire loss, Bush overhauled his campaign pitch and adopted a new slogan to counter McCain's reputation as a maverick reformer: "A Reformer With Results."

His rhetoric on tax cuts also changed. Instead of emphasizing the size of the cuts, Bush repeatedly contended half of the budget surplus still would go to reducing debt and protecting Social Security.

Some Bush fundraisers also reportedly have questioned how the campaign that raised a record $70-million had spent $50-million by the end of January only to lose New Hampshire.

Those whispered concerns will undoubtedly be heard again today in Washington and in Texas.

Bush's national campaign finance chairman, Donald Evans, insisted Bush's spending is in line with a contingency plan put in place after the Feb. 1 loss in New Hampshire.

"We have been investing. You have got to be ready for March 7 and March 14," Evans said. "You've done something wrong if you've got a lot of money in the bank. People just don't understand you have got to spend money to be ready."

Now Bush has to be ready for a longer battle than he once imagined.

McCain won the victory in Michigan that he had hoped to win in South Carolina, the one that confirmed New Hampshire was not a fluke.

Democratic and independent voters who did not turn out in enough numbers to help McCain in South Carolina flooded to the polls in Michigan and swept him to victory. Exit polls indicated that in a record turnout, more Democrats and independents than Republicans voted in the Republican primary.

McCain routinely appeals for support from "Republicans, Democrats, independents, libertarians and vegetarians." In his victory speech, though, he spoke directly to Republicans he will need in future contests.

"I am a proud Reagan conservative. I love the Republican Party. It is my home," he said Tuesday night. "We are creating a new majority, my friends. The McCain majority."

But the influx of non-Republicans angers Bush campaign officials, who are expected to complain that there has been a hostile takeover of the GOP. Bush said Tuesday night at a stop in Kansas City that he won among Republicans as well as conservative independents in Michigan.

"Among those two groups, there's no question who the winner is in Michigan," he said at a rally. "And you're looking at him."

Bush will see election rules more to his liking in many upcoming primaries. Florida and New York are among the states that allow only Republicans to vote in Republican primaries. California lets everyone vote, but only Republican votes count in allocating delegates to the GOP convention.

Even as Michigan voters went to the polls Tuesday, the two campaigns were still complaining about attacks from the other camp.

Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition, left taped telephone messages with voters that portrayed McCain as the enemy of anti-abortion groups and trashed the senator's campaign chairman, former Sen. Warren Rudman. Both Bush and McCain oppose abortion except in the cases of rape, incest and when the mother's life is in endangered.

Bush said Robertson, one of his supporters, did it on his own.

But the Texas governor had plenty to say about telephone calls from McCain supporters that suggested he is anti-Catholic because he visited Bob Jones University in South Carolina. The school has a reputation for intolerance toward racial minorities and Catholics.

"It's about as low as it gets," Bush complained before leaving Michigan on Tuesday.

Late Tuesday, aides to McCain acknowledged that the campaign had made the calls, the New York Times reported.

"We simply pointed out a fact," Davis, manager of the McCain campaign, said.

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