Taking no chances, Bush campaigns in Delaware

A primary victory could help recover from N.H. slippage

February 05, 2000|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DEWEY BEACH, Del. -- Under pressure after his resounding loss in the New Hampshire primary, George W. Bush is stepping up efforts to win Tuesday's Republican presidential primary in this state, a contest his campaign had once taken for granted.

Delaware should have been a slam-dunk for Bush, who is personally popular here and whose father is fondly recalled by many as a symbol of moderate Republicanism. What's more, Steve Forbes is the only Bush rival who has campaigned actively in Delaware.

Instead, the Texas governor has been thrown on the defensive by the surprising surge of Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who decided to skip the Delaware primary to marshal his money for the South Carolina primary on Feb. 19. The Bush campaign sees a chance to score a quick victory here and help its candidate recover from his surprising landslide defeat in New Hampshire.

The Forbes campaign acknowledges that it needs a strong showing in Delaware to remain a credible force in the presidential race, after winning just 13 percent of the vote in New Hampshire. It has turned renewed attention and resources to this sliver of a state, which has only 50,000 more residents than Baltimore.

"It's really intensified," said Basil Battaglia, the Republican state chairman. "Winning here affects their viability going into other states."

Though he is not campaigning in the state, McCain is on the ballot, and some Republicans said they were looking more favorably on the Arizona senator as they have learned more about him.

"If I had to vote today, it would be for McCain," said Wayne Leathem, a real estate agent from Lewes. "I didn't know much about McCain prior to all that television and media reporting. Prior to that, it had been Bush."

In stumping through the state Thursday, Bush ignored Forbes. Instead, the Texas governor took several calculated slaps at McCain.

"I'm campaigning in Delaware because I believe that anybody who runs for president should campaign in every state in the Union," Bush told a crowd of nearly 500 Republicans at the Bay Center restaurant in Dewey Beach. "I don't see how you can run for president of the United States and skip a state like Delaware."

Hungry for media coverage, Forbes declared the contest to be up for grabs. The wealthy publisher -- who won the primary here in 1996, when no one else seriously campaigned for it -- has built up a sizable organization in Delaware.

Forbes has a relatively a large paid staff of 10; he also boasts more than 100 volunteers who are executing the campaign's get-out-the-vote drive.

`Race is wide open'

"We now know there is no more inevitability in this presidential race," Forbes told reporters in Wilmington Thursday. "The race is now wide open."

The Bush camp won't go that far, although privately his allies in Delaware say they are more concerned about his prospects than they were before New Hampshire.

"We are making a strong commitment to Delaware," said Ari Fleischer, a Bush campaign spokesman. "Delaware's obviously a very important state."

Both Bush and Forbes are pouring more money into advertising on television and radio stations and direct mail and adding appearances throughout the state to win backers among the roughly 140,000 registered Republicans.

In the wake of New Hampshire, the Bush campaign tapped Rep. Michael N. Castle, the popular former governor who represents all of Delaware in the House of Representatives, to record advertisements endorsing Bush. The ads began airing yesterday.

As he had in New Hampshire, Bush has lined up the support of much of the state's political and corporate establishment. And the co-chairman of his state campaign here, Pat Murray, has promised a "68 to 70 percent" victory for Bush.

Concerned that their candidate will be out of the state -- and out of the headlines -- this weekend, Bush's Delaware staffers e-mailed messages to congressional Republican aides, asking them to appear at rallies. The campaign promised to arrange discounted hotel rooms for those who make the trip.

Earlier this week, Forbes sent bright orange postcards inviting thousands of Republicans to a free sausage-and-eggs breakfast yesterday in Dewey Beach. More than 350 turned out, giving him a warm welcome in the same hall where Bush had spoken the night before.

Forbes' campaign insists it will measure its success not by whether it wins but by how many Republicans vote against Bush -- a premise that McCain's aides echo.

"We're happy to step aside to allow Mr. Forbes and Governor Bush to engage mano-a-mano" in Delaware, said Todd Harris, a McCain spokesman. "While that's going on, we'll be here in South Carolina, building upon the momentum that we created in New Hampshire."

McCain is essentially discounted in Delaware, because independents -- a major base of his support -- are not allowed to cast ballots in the Republican primary, as they can in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

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