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Tonight could wrap it all up

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2000


It has been cooking for months, with more spice than the original recipe provided.

A John McCain upset in New Hampshire. A George W. Bush comeback in South Carolina. Another McCain surprise in Michigan, followed by a Bush sweep of Washington, North Dakota and Virginia.

Those were regional taste tests. Today is the national smorgasbord.

A baker's dozen, 13 states, hold Republican presidential primaries or caucuses today. By tonight, it should be clear whether McCain's insurgent campaign is effectively finished or lives to continue the fight with the Texas governor for the Republican nomination.

In hype, Super Tuesday rivals the Super Bowl. For drama, it ought to be better.

Unless you're a Democrat.

Vice President Al Gore appears poised today to wrap up the Democratic nomination. More focused and aggressive, he leads in the polls in virtually all of the 15 states holding Democratic primaries and caucuses. Democrats pick 1,315 delegates, more than half the number needed to win the nomination.

Former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, who calls today his "takeoff" day, is not expected to get off the ground and reportedly is planning a graceful exit. Unable to maintain the energy and excitement that fueled his campaign last fall, Bradley deserves praise for calling attention to national problems such as health insurance and child poverty.

In the Republican battle, no one is even whispering about surrender until today's results are clear. At stake are 613 delegates, more than half the number needed to win the nomination.

McCain continued to attack Monday, saying the $2.5-million in attack ads run by Bush allies is "so Clintonesque, it's scary." Bush took the highroad of the front-runner as he headed back to Austin, passing up opportunities to escalate the rhetoric.

What happens today will determine the importance of the Florida primary, one week from today. If the Texas governor wins big, Florida still will hold a primary but the race will be over. If McCain pulls off a few more upsets, Florida and Texas would serve as Bush's final fire wall. For anyone who cares more about close contests than particular candidates, there is a way for the McCain mutiny to extend its run.

First, he has to sweep New England: Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and Connecticut.

That may be the most plausible portion of the best-case scenario for McCain. All but Connecticut allow either independents or all voters to cast ballots in either primary. That's good for McCain, whose victories have been fueled by overwhelming support among independents and Democrats.

In Connecticut, only Republicans can vote in the GOP primary. Polls show the race is too close to call.

Those five states combine for 102 delegates. That conveniently happens to be one more delegate than New York, where Bush and McCain are engaged in a brawl of negative ads.

But McCain can't afford an East Coast draw, taking New England while Bush wins New York. He also has to win New York to remain competitive and offset losses elsewhere. Polls show the race is close, despite the efforts by Gov. George Pataki on Bush's behalf and ads unfairly attacking McCain's commitment to breast cancer research.

The New York rules, which allow only Republicans to vote in the GOP primary, favor Bush. McCain has been unable to win a majority of Republican voters despite his conservative voting record in the Senate.

"McCain is in no way, shape or form the liberal or the middle-of-the-roader that Bush tries to portray him, but the fact is he has not made inroads among Republican grass roots," said Stephen Craig, a political science professor at the University of Florida. "Without that, there is no way for him to win this thing."

Just for fun, hand New York to McCain in a nail-biter.

Give Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington state to Bush. The Texas governor has a substantial advantage in endorsements, organization or party rules in all three states.

Missouri has been all but ignored by both candidates. Since we are building a case for McCain, let's give him this one as well.

That leaves the last two big prizes: Ohio and California.

Ohio would appear to be ripe for a Michigan scenario forMcCain. The governor and party activists favor Bush, just as they did in Michigan. But independents and Democrats can vote in the Republican primary there, and those are the moderate voters McCain relied on in Michigan to win.

The polls show Bush leading. Hand it to McCain in an upset.

But even the most optimistic scenario cannot give the 162 California delegates to McCain. While the names of all candidates appear on the same ballot, only the Republican votes count in assigning delegates.

Bush is far ahead among Republican voters in the latest tracking polls in California. Though he spent considerable time and money there, the best McCain can hope for is winning the popular vote even if he loses the delegates.

That's the wildest, best possible outcome for McCain today: Win New England, New York, Ohio and the popular vote in California.

If Bush wins New York, Ohio and California, it's over even if McCain wins California's popular vote. Bragging rights count for zip in the delegate totals.

If McCain wins New York but loses Ohio and the California delegates, the results would be muddled enough to keep the race alive for another week.

After tonight, that would be dessert.

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