Bush inches ahead in S.C.

Polls provide Texan confidence

McCain counts on crossover

Bush `fixin' to win'

Positive campaign will carry him to victory, senator says

February 19, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- History is about to repeat itself in today's red-hot South Carolina primary. The question is: Which history?

After a fierce and highly negative battle, polls show George W. Bush opening up a small lead over John McCain. Once again, this state's Republican regulars might be riding to the rescue of a faltering front-runner, as they have whenever a favorite has slipped in the early going.

"I'm fixin' to win tomorrow," Bush said, campaigning with renewed confidence across the Piedmont plateau, the heart of his upstate Christian conservative base.

McCain, meantime, is shooting for a rerun of the history he made in the New Hampshire primary. There, a huge turnout of non-Republicans lifted his underdog candidacy past the better-financed Bush.

Winning South Carolina would send him all the way to the nomination, a fiery McCain predicted at a noon rally in Charleston. "There is no way that we can be stopped."

McCain is appealing to independents and even Democrats, who have no primary contestof their own today and are free to vote in the Republican contest.

Two Republican congressmen, Lindsey Graham and Mark Sanford, are actively supporting him, giving the race an enticing local subplot: McCain's young Turks vs. Bush's old guard.

There are other important divisions here, both geographical and demographic.

McCain is trying to mobilize the state's large population of military families. The Arizona senator is also reaching out to the many independent-minded newcomers who have retired along the coast or found work in the state's fast-growing economy.

Bush is banking on the support of social and religious conservatives, who make up a sizable part of the Republican establishment. Polls show the Texas governor with roughly two-thirds of the votes of those who consider themselves Republicans.

But McCain is the first Republican presidential contender since the modern primary system began with strong crossover appeal to moderate and even liberal Democrats. That has made it difficult for analysts to predict the outcome of today's balloting, especially in a state such as South Carolina, where voters don't register by party.

If he can attract an unprecedented number of independent and Democratic voters, McCain could overcome Bush's strength among established Republicans.

Record turnout expected

Bush has spent millions to get out the Republican base, whose votes have crushed insurgents in past elections -- including in 1992, when Patrick J. Buchanan surprised President George Bush in New Hampshire, and 1996, when he did the same to Bob Dole.

A record turnout is expected, along with balmy weather in the 60s and 70s and a chance of showers. Forecasting the winner might be more difficult.

"Got a coin?" asked Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster who isn't working for either campaign.

If the final polls are right, Ayres said, Bush is likely to come out on top.

But the energy and enthusiasm generated by McCain could produce a far larger vote for him than the polls are indicating, just as they did in New Hampshire.

"Bush's campaign took a totally different approach in South Carolina than it took in New Hampshire," Ayres said.

"This time, he played to win. In New Hampshire, he played not to lose."

Since the South Carolina primary began in 1980, the winner has gone on to become the Republican nominee every time. Whether that happens again this year, the results will shape the remainder of the Republican contest.

"I don't think people here fully realize how important this election is going to be," says Henry McMaster, the state Republican chairman.

The returns are expected to influence voters in Tuesday's primaries in Michigan and Arizona, where McCain has been surging since his 18-point New Hampshire victory.

Bush was clearly energized by the latest poll numbers, which showed him leading by 3 to 12 percentage points.

Sounding more upbeat than he has in weeks, he dismissed as "weak-kneed" several former supporters who defected to the McCain camp this week, including the highest-ranking Republican official in California.

Financial backers

And when a TV interviewer asked what his financial backers were getting for their $70 million in donations -- most of which his campaign has spent -- Bush replied, "They're about to get a Republican nominee for president named George W. Bush."

Less than 24 hours earlier, the Texan had sounded much more tentative. He declined to call South Carolina vital to his campaign and told reporters that he's bad at predicting elections.

"I actually thought I was going to win New Hampshire," he said.

The acrimonious 18-day campaign in this state, after a relatively low-key and gentlemanly New Hampshire race, has been in keeping with South Carolina's bare-knuckle politics.

It was here that one of the 20th century's best-known campaign strategists, the late Lee Atwater, developed a reputation as a master of negative campaigning.

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