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Gore, Bush rack up big wins

Bradley concedes defeat in Tuesday's votes. McCain takes a few states, but not enough to outlast Bush.

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2000


More than ever, it appears the nation's next president will be Al Gore or George W. Bush.

The vice president delivered a knockout punch Tuesday to former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, winning all 11 primaries to claim the Democratic nomination.

Bush is winning the Republican nomination on points.

The Texas governor's lead against Arizona Sen. John McCain appears insurmountable with victories Tuesday in states such as Ohio, Georgia, Maryland and Missouri. Bush led a tight race in New York, and he was expected to win the Republican delegates in California even as the overall popular vote appeared to be close.

"We have good news from sea to shining sea," Bush said Tuesday night. "We were challenged -- and we met the challenge. We were tested -- and we were equal to the test."

As Bush celebrated in Austin, Texas, McCain prepared to retreat to Arizona today to reassess his insurgent campaign. The former Vietnam prisoner of war downplayed speculation he would give up, vowing to campaign in Colorado and Illinois later this week.

"Clearly our message of reform has had a powerful impact," McCain said in a statement early Tuesday evening.

Even if McCain remains in the race, Bush can swat him down next week. He will not lose his home state of Texas, and Florida is as good as home with his younger brother, Jeb, in the Governor's Mansion.

While Florida and Texas are among nearly two dozen states that still have primary elections, Tuesday effectively decided the nominations.

It was the biggest primary election day in history as both parties awarded more than half the delegates needed to win the nominations. There were 1,315 delegates at stake for the Democrats in 11 primaries and four state caucuses and American Samoa and 613 delegates for the Republicans in 13 states.

As the results rolled in, the front-runners squashed all talk of upstarts and upsets.

Bradley, whose campaign never recovered from the narrow loss to Gore on Feb. 1 in New Hampshire, did not pull off the upsets he needed to justify staying in the race. He could pull out as early as today.

"We've shaped the national debate in this campaign," Bradley said in a speech that sounded like a farewell address. "We brought core Democratic issues to the fore."

Gore, who overhauled his campaign last fall, became more aggressive and has been focusing on the general election for the past several days. He won by landslides in many states, from Ohio to Georgia.

"We stand at a mountaintop-moment in our history," Gore told cheering supporters Tuesday night in Nashville, referring to the country's record economic prosperity. "We need to build on our record of prosperity. We don't need to go back where we were eight years ago."

In the Republican race, McCain had envisioned a scenario that would have enabled him to aggressively continue the fight. Of the 13 contests, he hoped to sweep five New England states. Then he wanted to upset Bush in New York and Ohio and win the popular vote in California, where all voters could cast ballots but only the Republican totals counted for awarding delegates.

That strategy quickly unraveled.

Bush won Maine to ruin McCain's New England sweep. He also won the third-biggest prize of Ohio, where McCain had hoped to rely on independents and Democrats to win as he did two weeks ago in Michigan.

McCain won Rhode Island, Vermont and Massachusetts and Connecticut -- where Bush's grandfather was a U.S. senator and where three generations of the family attended Yale.

"I'm sure my good grandfather is rolling over in his grave," Bush joked on CNN.

The Republican race was close in New York, where the campaign had turned fierce in recent days as Bush accused McCain of opposing funding for breast cancer research. McCain was doing well in Long Island and New York City while Bush was doing well in upstate New York.

Alan Keyes, the conservative talk show host and former ambassador, was not a factor in any of the contests.

There was an air of confidence in the Bush camp even before the polls closed.

"If he didn't lock up the nomination, he'll be near it," Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said of his older brother before watching election results from the Governor's Mansion in Tallahassee.

Tuesday's primary election results mean Floridians will not see much of a contest before they go to the polls March 14.

In South Florida, a McCain volunteer on Tuesday positioned the campaign to buy radio ads in up to a dozen areas, including Sarasota and the Panhandle. Arrangements also were being made for McCain to make three stops in the state Saturday, possibly in Jacksonville, Sarasota and Brevard County.

But those plans won't be set in motion until McCain and his top aides review their options today in Arizona.

"We want to be able to push the button and let it all roll," said Lawrence Gay, the McCain volunteer sent to Florida by the campaign.

Whether Bush visits Florida has not been decided. His father, former President George Bush, will speak at a private fundraiser for the state Republican Party on Thursday in Miami.

Locking up the Republican nomination was not supposed to be this tough for Bush.

Since the Texas governor formed his exploratory committee nearly a year ago, the son of the former president has been the clear choice by the Republican establishment.

Bush signed on members of Congress, governors and party activists by the dozens. He rejected public campaign financing and raised $70-million by the end of 1999, more than any presidential candidate had ever raised during an entire campaign.

Money and organization weren't the only reasons for his front-runner status. The family name helped, of course. But Bush also had quickly built a reputation in Texas for reaching out beyond traditional Republican constituencies to Democrats, African Americans and Hispanics. His pitch for compassionate conservatism sounded like the perfect antidote to the hard-edged Republicans in Congress who lost fight after fight to President Clinton.

But the coronation quickly turned into a spirited contest after Bush lost the New Hampshire primary to McCain. The result is that some of Bush's best assets have been seriously diminished by the unanticipated struggle.

The $70-million campaign account has nearly vanished, with less than $10-million reportedly left. That means Bush will have to spend more time raising money than anticipated, and he is expected to hold a fundraiser in Palm Beach later this month.

Bush's image as a moderate also has been tarnished.

Following the loss in New Hampshire, Bush turned to the Christian right to rebound in conservative South Carolina. He won the state with the help of supporters such as religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition, and Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition's former executive director. But his visit to Bob Jones University, combined with his failure to quickly denounce the school's since-repealed ban on interracial dating and its anti-Catholic rhetoric, cost him support elsewhere.

Bush lost to McCain in Michigan, then rebounded to win Virginia, North Dakota and Washington last week. But his proposal for record tax cuts has generated little enthusiasm, and his call for education reform has been lost amid the rhetoric over attack ads, campaign tactics and the Bob Jones University controversy.

"My own view is that Bush has got a lot of work to do," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant in California. "He didn't anticipate he would have a Republican opponent in the primaries, and it caused him to lose his compassionate conservative message."

While Bush has consistently won the majority of Republican votes, McCain has been winning more votes from Democrats and independents in open primaries.

Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said he is confident Bush can win over those voters after the nomination is decided and reclaim the middle ground.

"We need to make sure we shift our focus to the general electorate," said Cardenas, a Bush supporter. "We would have preferred to be able to do that a month ago, but I'm not uncomfortable with where we are compared to 1996."

Translation of the party line: Bush still is in much better shape as he looks toward Gore than Bob Dole was four years ago to take on incumbent Bill Clinton.

- Times Washington bureau chief Sara Fritz and staff writer Julie Hauserman contributed to this report.

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