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Ups, downs keep GOP race exciting

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2000


Al Gore should send John McCain a thank-you note.

So what if the Republican senator from Arizona regularly promises to beat the Democratic vice president "like a drum" in the general election. McCain's victories keep the spotlight on the GOP primary and off Gore's challenger, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley.

A month ago, Bradley appeared to have a better shot at upsetting a front-runner than McCain. He had more money than McCain, a better organization and more thoughtful policy proposals. Gore appeared to be a far more vulnerable favorite than Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the $70-million man.

McCain attracts all of the attention now. An insurgent has to build momentum, election by election. Bradley lost two straight and went off the radar screen. This week's debate between Gore and Bradley couldn't touch the Republican primary for excitement.

McCain's victories Tuesday night in Michigan and Arizona gave him wins in three out of the first four high-profile GOP primaries and captured the imagination of everyone who likes to watch David battle Goliath. The covers of Time and Newsweek, featuring Bush savoring his win Saturday in South Carolina, already are out of date in a race that rises and falls with every election.

On the campaign trail, the looks on the candidates' faces and the tones of their voices are more revealing than the spin by their surrogates.

In snow-covered New Hampshire, Bush had defeat written all over him as he went through the motions like a wind-up toy in the final days before the nation's first primary. Only McCain's margin of victory was a surprise.

Passing through the tidal marshes and historic hotels of South Carolina, the Texas governor joked and smiled like a man certain of winning long before the votes were counted. Bush won big behind the muscle of the religious right.

On the plane to Michigan late Saturday night, he chatted and joked with reporters like a man confident of his destiny.

He missed the brick wall directly ahead.

Michigan was too big and the dynamics were too fluid to predict the outcome from anecdotal evidence.

Bush and Gov. John Engler were attached at the hip, and Engler had long promised to deliver the state to his friend. But how many independents and Democrats would turn out for a Republican primary and vote for McCain was a tougher question than those on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

It was clear Bush and McCain had no better clues than reporters that Democrats and independents would flock to the polls and propel McCain to victory.

McCain even left the day before the election, flying home to Arizona to celebrate his certain victory there. Bush stuck around until Tuesday afternoon, holding a final event in a Detroit suburb that sounded off-key.

Michigan's governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state were all there, but they sounded more wishful than confident. "I'm all the time asked if I am worried about the outcome of the election," Bush told about 200 people in a sparkling Canton community center. "Not from what I see."

But Bush did not take questions from reporters like he did on election day in South Carolina. And his top aides disappeared for several hours before the campaign plane took off for California late Tuesday afternoon.

Those are sure signs of doubt about the outcome.

By the time Bush's plane landed for a pit stop early Tuesday evening in Kansas City, a Detroit television station already had projected McCain as the winner.

The first three weeks of February have been a Republican roller coaster. McCain rode up in New Hampshire, down in South Carolina and back up in Michigan and Arizona. The biggest hill lies just ahead.

The campaigns are moving nationwide as they aim for March 7, when more than a dozen states hold primaries and caucuses. Instead of bouncing between Charleston and Columbia in South Carolina or Saginaw and Grand Rapids in Michigan, Bush and McCain will hopscotch from Ohio to California to New York.

Who rides highest on that first Tuesday in March could determine the length and possibly the outcome of the race for the Republican nomination.

McCain has accomplished what campaign manager Rick Davis said in early January he had to do to extend the fight. He won three out of the first four high-profile primaries.

"We never thought, unlike George W. Bush, that this would be a quick win," Davis said this week.

Lengthening the battle is different than winning it.

The odds are still against McCain. He cannot win the Republican nomination on the backs of Democrats and independents. Many of the upcoming primaries, including those in California and New York, count only Republican votes in allocating delegates to the national convention. Bush won two of every three Republican votes in Michigan even as he lost the total vote.

McCain has plenty to sell Republicans, including a conservative voting record in the Senate. He supports tuition vouchers, opposes abortion and vows to use most of the budget surplus to pay down the debt.

Those are hardly liberal positions.

McCain also can tout new national poll numbers that could prompt many Republicans to reconsider their support for Bush. Both candidates pledge at every stop to restore dignity to the White House. But McCain now fares much better against Gore than Bush does in hypothetical match-ups.

The next two weeks ought to be one wild ride.

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