McCain in a romp, Gore in a close call

Arizona Republican stuns front-runner Bush in N.H. primary

Hailing "forces of reform"

For Democrat Bradley, momentum in narrow loss to ice president

February 02, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BEDFORD, N.H. -- Sen. John McCain knocked Texas Gov. George W. Bush off the Republican front-runner's perch with a blowout victory in yesterday's New Hampshire primary.

In the Democratic race, Vice President Al Gore edged former Sen. Bill Bradley by about 5 percentage points, based on nearly complete returns.

Gore had hoped that by winning back-to-back in Iowa and New Hampshire, he would end the nomination race here. But the tight finish gave the challenger a strong enough showing to go on.

The unexpected size of McCain's triumph -- he won by about 18 percentage points -- reshapes the Republican contest, at least for the next three weeks. It adds new importance to coming primaries in Delaware and South Carolina, where Bush will try to put his candidacy back on track.

McCain called his runaway victory last night "the beginning of the end for the truth-twisting politics of Bill Clinton and Al Gore."

Grinning widely, but speaking in a restrained manner, McCain told cheering supporters in Nashua, N.H., that his campaign in the state had succeeded in harnessing the "forces of reform" to "a national crusade to take our government back from the special interests."

Bush,appearing upbeat despite the thumping he had just taken, told supporters he had phoned "my friend" McCain to congratulate him on his "strong race."

Then, drawing a deep breath, Bush added: "New Hampshire has long been known as a bump in the road for front-runners, and this year is no exception. The road to the Republican nomination and the White House is a long road."

Bush said he would continue to focus on "solving problems" rather than "trading charges." But as the campaign heads toward more conservative Southern turf, Bush signaled in a TV interview his intention to portray McCain as a Washington insider who had come at him from the left in the Granite State.

The Texas governor described McCain as a "more moderate-to-liberal" rival, in comparison to his own "more conservative" beliefs. Shrugging off exit polls that showed him losing conservative Republican votes to McCain yesterday, Bush contended that "a conservative in New Hampshire may not be a conservative in South Carolina and Texas."

Showdown shaping up

McCain's victory sets up a showdown with Bush on Feb. 19 in South Carolina. McCain, who has campaigned heavily in that state, flew to Greenville, S.C., for a post-midnight rally early today.

Bush, meantime, will compete in next Tuesday's primary in Delaware. His main rival there is expected to be Steve Forbes, the wealthy publisher who finished a weak third in New Hampshire but won Delaware four years ago.

Surveys of voters as they left polling places yesterday showed that the Arizona senator's call for campaign finance reform and his performance in televised debates were the main reasons voters gave for supporting him.

Independent voters, who were allowed to participate in either primary, heavily favored McCain and Bradley. But McCain also defeated Bush among registered Republicans, exit polls showed.

McCain's double-digit victory margin astonished Republican politicians around the country and stunned the Bush camp, which had expected to win or finish a close second here. The senator's winning margin was the biggest in a contested Republican primary here since 1980, when Ronald Reagan defeated Bush's father.

"It clearly means that voters in the upcoming primary states are going to do a double-take," said Paul Wilson, a Republican political strategist who is not involved in the presidential campaign. "They're going to say, `We need to look closely at McCain.' "

On the Democratic side, Gore's hopes for a decisive primary victory evaporated under the counter-attack in the closing days of the contest from a newly revitalized Bradley. Gore reacted belatedly to Bradley's assault on his abortion-rights stance, which appeared to have hurt Gore.

Gore-Bradley debates

Even before the returns had come in, Bradley's campaign announced that he would accept Gore's offer of weekly debates, after having rejected it months ago. But Gore said Bradley had taken only a "half-step" because he did not also agree to suspend TV ads.

The Democrats do not have another primary for five weeks. On March 7, there will be contests in 10 states, including California, New York, Ohio and Maryland.

Gore, in an election night speech, credited his victory to his campaign's turnaround in New Hampshire last fall, when he shed many of the trappings of office and began conducting lengthy question-and-answer sessions with undecided voters.

Back to the people

"When I was behind, I went back to the people," Gore said. "I listened to you. I shared your concerns. I spoke about your dreams and how we can make this country better for your future. If you entrust me with the presidency, I will continue to have open meetings as president, including here in New Hampshire."

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