Super Tuesday could be `finale'

Gore arrives in Md., and hopefuls focus on 16-state March 7 vote

February 15, 2000|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When Vice President Al Gore's Marine helicopter touches down near Morgan State University this morning, it will be just one more stop in a coast-to-coast campaign swing to 10 states in one week.

Gore's if-this-is-Tuesday-it-must-be-Baltimore itinerary looks more like the final, frantic hours before a November election. But with a virtually national primary three weeks away, the presidential candidates need to cover as much ground as possible.

On March 7, voters in 16 states, including Maryland, will cast ballots in what will be the biggest primary day in modern history -- one that could determine the nominee of at least one of the two major parties.

More than half the delegates necessary for winning the Democratic and Republican nominations are up for grabs that day, making March 7 as close to a make-or-break day for the four major presidential candidates as there is in campaign 2000.

With that in mind, Gore will be jetting from tarmac to tarmac in the next three weeks to cover as much ground as possible, including his stoptoday at Morgan State. Texas Gov. George W. Bush has just started running TV ads in the state, even as he aims the bulk of his energy and resources at the South Carolina primary and several other runoffs that will occur before the March 7 primaries and caucuses.

"March 7 is positioned to give the knockout punch," says Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who is unaffiliated with any campaign. "That's why they call it Super Tuesday."

On that day, contests will be held in all regions of the country, most notably in the delegate-rich states of California, New York and Ohio -- states that had moved up their primaries to join the Super Tuesday crush in hopes of wielding more influence.

Maryland, with its 68 Democratic and 31 Republican delegates, will be overshadowed by such populous states as California, where, on the Republican side, the candidate who wins by a single vote receives all 162 Republican delegates.

"Basically, we have a national primary," says Mark Siegel, former executive director of the Democratic National Committee.

The front-loaded primary calendar, with so many delegates elected so soon in the race, has shaped the presidential campaign. The accelerated calendar, which benefits candidates who are well funded, forced a number of Republican candidates, such as Elizabeth Dole and Dan Quayle, to drop out of the race last year, months before a vote had been cast.

"Only people who have front-loaded money can compete," says Siegel, a critic of the rules who has proposed grouping primaries by time zones. "We've added another criterion for being president: Now, you have to be a native-born American, 35 years of age -- with $40 million in the bank."

The bunching of early primaries and caucuses is also dictating the nature of the campaign. The town hall meetings, diner drop-bys and meet-and-greets of Iowa and New Hampshire are being replaced by airport-hopping and TV ads in major media markets, especially for the Democrats, who, unlike the Republicans, have no primaries between now and March 7.

"The campaign shifts from ground warfare to an air war," says Jack Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont-McKenna College in California. "Electrons replace handshakes."

Noting the vice president's frenetic schedule this week, a Gore strategist noted: "We're everywhere, doing everything at once. The process has moved from intensive voter contact in every conceivable realm to a gigantic national primary where we're communicating through broad-based media."

Many Democratic analysts say they believe that, without some dramatic or unexpected event, Gore is likely to lock up the nomination March 7. The vice president has the momentum from his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as a vast network of support, with organized labor at its core, in all the key Super Tuesday states and beyond.

Bill Bradley, who has been trying to energize his campaign with a steady drumbeat of attacks on Gore, has enough money to continue beyond March 7 even without a major victory that day. But with so much attention on the Republican race, and specifically, on Sen. John McCain, Bradley's campaign has been losing ground in such key states as New York, where the former New Jersey senator played pro basketball and was once expected to win.

"If he can't win there, he can't win anywhere," says Pitney.

Thomas E. Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, says Gore victories March 7 could "provide the rationale for Bradley to drop out of the race," especially since the campaign shifts to the South on March 14, with another cluster of primaries in states where Gore enjoys wide leads over Bradley in the polls.

On the Republican side, Super Tuesday is more unpredictable. Intervening are a handful of primaries, including Saturday's vote in South Carolina, that are likely to affect its outcome. But it may be no less decisive for the Republicans.

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