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By MARY JACOBY
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2000
WASHINGTON -- Buoyed by victory in Tuesday's GOP primaries, John McCain appealed to the Republican Party establishment that has been so hostile toward his upstart presidential candidacy: "Don't fear this campaign, my fellow Republicans. Join it. Join it."
Tension between Republican insurgents who command popular support and establishment candidates who pull the levers of the party machinery is nothing new. Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, two of the party's most revered figures, were insurgents vigorously opposed by the Republican organization.
Citing the legacy of Roosevelt and Reagan, McCain supporters argue that history is on their side. They insist -- unrealistically, perhaps -- that the establishment will heed the lessons of past nominating fights and come around to McCain as a candidate able to bring in new voters to the party and defeat a Democrat in the general election.
"The old guard and the establishment will start cracking. They'll have defections," predicted McCain adviser Marshall Wittmann. "The establishment wants more than anything to win the White House."
Wittmann noted that "in the last two presidential elections, the Republican Party has gotten only around 40 percent of the vote. If the Republican Party is to win in 2000, it's imperative it attract independents and Democrats."
McCain won the New Hampshire and Michigan primaries with strong support from Democrats and independents, though Bush won a majority of Republican votes.
McCain campaign general counsel Trevor Potter said the Arizonan's appeal to crossover voters will force party officials to reassess.
"The whole appeal of George Bush is based on the fact he could beat (Vice President Al) Gore and take the White House back. With the exception of the sort of die-hard anti-McCain portion of the party, everyone else is looking for a winner. And if they are convinced that McCain is that winner, they will embrace him," Potter said.
But party regulars, while they may be reassessing privately, are not rushing to jump ship. Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, for one, will not abandon Bush, said spokesman Andy Fisher. Fisher said that he had seen no sign of movement among other Bush backers toward McCain. Even some McCain supporters are pessimistic. "John McCain would welcome lots of people into his Republican big tent, but he's not counting on any establishment switches," said former Reagan White House chief of staff Ken Duberstein.
The only defection of consequence so far has been California Secretary of State Bill Jones. Jones is California's highest-ranking GOP elected official. But he is little known outside the state and unlikely to boost McCain nationally.
Bush has been endorsed by a majority of Republican governors and members of the U.S. Senate and House. He also has wide support from state Republican legislators, local officials and Washington lobbyists.
The McCain campaign is hoping their candidate's strong showing in public opinion polls will convince Bush backers to change their minds. A recent survey by CNN, USA Today and Gallup put McCain 24 points ahead of Gore in a hypothetical matchup. Bush was five points ahead of Gore.
The poll also showed why McCain is hungry for party support now after thriving without it in New Hampshire and Michigan. Among Republicans likely to vote in the remaining primaries, Bush crushed McCain, 58 percent to 31 percent.
The Michigan and New Hampshire GOP primaries were open to Democrats and independents. But vote-rich New York and other states in the big round of primaries March 7 do not allow crossover voting.
California's primary, also March 7, is semi-open. The popular vote will be determined by all voters, but only Republican ballots will be counted toward the selection of delegates for the party's national convention in Philadelphia this summer.
To attract more Republicans, McCain is expected to move to the right in the next two weeks. He is expected to stress his anti-abortion record and efforts to cut government spending. He has tried to tie himself closely to Reagan, calling himself a "proud Reagan conservative" who can bring back into the party the so-called Reagan Democrats who gave the GOP winning margins in 1980 and 1984.
McCain is "a Reagan Reformer," said Reaganite Duberstein, a McCain adviser. "He's a Reagan Republican. He's a Reagan conservative."
While stressing conservative credentials, McCain also hopes to position himself as the more viable general-election candidate after Bush's lurch to the right in South Carolina's Feb. 19 primary, which the Texan won with appeals to religious conservatives.
And although Bush's heavy spending in the primaries has caused his once formidable fundraising advantage to evaporate, McCain still needs all the help he can get. That's why, in his victory speech Tuesday night, McCain appealed to Republicans to come to him "in the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan."
The allusion was not accidental. Like McCain, both men were anti-establishment candidates who had to scrap for their place in history. McCain has said he feels a special affinity for Roosevelt, who fought to limit the influence of big business on politics and signed a law banning corporate campaign contributions. Likewise, McCain has upset the status quo in Washington with his push for campaign finance reform.
The repeated references to Roosevelt and Reagan are meant to remind Republicans that the establishment has sometimes done the party more harm than good in thwarting the popular candidate.
Roosevelt, for example, had a long history of struggling with party bosses. Ironically, he became vice president to William McKinley because the party boss in New York wanted him out of the governorship of the state, where his reform politics were upsetting business interests.
Roosevelt became president in 1901 after McKinley was assassinated. After an illustrious career as a "trust buster" and environmentalist, the popular Roosevelt did not run for a second term in 1908. His hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, became president.
But in 1912, Roosevelt tried to reclaim the presidency from Taft. Although Roosevelt was more popular among voters, Taft controlled the state party machinery and delegates at the nominating convention.
Denied the GOP nomination, an angry Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate. The schism in the GOP handed the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Sometimes, the Republican candidate with more appeal in a general election triumphs, as Dwight D. Eisenhower did in 1952 when he won the GOP nomination over colorless Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio. But McCain's predecessor in the U.S. Senate, Barry Goldwater, wrested the Republican nomination from establishment candidate Nelson Rockefeller in 1964 and went on to lose soundly to Democrat Lyndon Johnson in the general election.
Another famously fierce nominating fight occurred in 1976 when Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford. Using the power of incumbency, Ford snuffed out Reagan's insurgency but lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Reagan returned in 1980 to win the nomination over George Bush, who was considered the establishment candidate. He selected Bush -- the father of the current presidential candidate -- as his vice president and defeated Carter. Reagan served two terms and was succeeded by Bush, who lost to Bill Clinton in 1992.
- Times Washington bureau chief Sara Fritz contributed to this report.
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