Bush confident on eve of Michigan primary

Recent polls show McCain with slim lead, but don't reflect Bush's win in S.C.

February 21, 2000|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. -- An effervescent and energized Gov. George W. Bush, saying he sensed "something in the air in Michigan" akin to what he experienced before winning the South Carolina primary, hit the ground running here yesterday, bent on cramming in as much campaigning as he can for tomorrow's primary.

Only hours after his victory over Arizona Sen. John McCain in South Carolina, the Texas governor started a two-day swing across Michigan, whose 58 delegates constitute the largest prize so far this year in the Republican presidential race.

Bush was the picture of confidence as he told a large, enthusiastic rally at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, a blue-collar suburb of Detroit, that "there are 260 days more for no more Clinton-Gore." He pointedly made no reference to McCain in his speech, as if he now had Vice President Al Gore in his sights, not his main Republican rival.

However, at a news conference afterward, the Texas governor reiterated his view that a McCain television ad in South Carolina that said Bush "twists the truth like Clinton" was "about as low" a blow as anyone could level in a Republican primary.

In response to a question about McCain's combative post-primary remarks in South Carolina that were critical of Bush, the Texan said it "sounds like Senator McCain is spending a lot of his time talking about me. I want to talk about where I want to lead the country."

Bush continued to deny that he has been waging a negative campaign. In an interview with ABC News conducted Saturday night before he left for Michigan, the Texas governor cited exit polls in South Carolina, where voters said they regarded McCain's campaign as having been more negative than Bush's.

Greeting Bush on his arrival in Michigan was the latest Detroit News poll of 600 "very likely voters" showing him narrowly behind McCain, who was the choice of 40 percent of voters surveyed, with 38 percent for Bush and 4 percent for Alan L. Keyes, the former Maryland talk-show host.

The survey was completed two days before the decisive Bush victory in South Carolina and so did not reflect any boost that he might have received from the win.

Steve Mitchell, who conducted the survey for the Detroit News, said polling in the past two days showed voters leaning more toward Bush, and that he thought the trend would continue because of the outcome in South Carolina.

Accompanying Bush on his Michigan swing yesterday was Gov. John Engler, who was among the first governors to throw his support behind Bush. The Michigan governor's actions have led local political observers to speculate about whether he was inspired to do so by interest in being Bush's running mate or a member of his Cabinet. Engler has dodged such questions, and Bush has remained noncommittal on all such talk.

As in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, independents and Democrats will be able to vote here tomorrow. And as he did before those primaries, Bush stressed his record as a conservative Republican to try to overcome McCain's advantage among non-Republicans.

Bush's support among the Republican base in South Carolina was striking -- and crucial to his success there.

Four years ago, a record 296,000 South Carolinians voted in the state's Republican primary, including about 90,000 independents and Democrats. This time, independents and Democrats alone cast 220,000 votes in South Carolina, based on exit poll data, with McCain carrying the vast majority of them.

But their votes were swamped by the 345,000 ballots cast by Republicans, who favored Bush by a lopsided margin.

In Michigan, Bush once more will rely on the party establishment, headed by Engler. But he also indicated that he would compete with McCain for the support of the so-called moderate Reagan Democrats by holding another rally in Macomb County, which borders Detroit.

Beyond the lack of a Democratic primary in Michigan tomorrow, another lure for Democrats to vote -- particularly in Detroit -- is their animosity toward Engler, for his virtual takeover of Detroit's school system and for eliminating residency requirements for the city's police and firefighters.

Under Engler, the Republican Party has been dominated by conservatives in a state that was once led by such prominent moderates as former Gov. William Milliken, former Lt. Gov. James Buckley and former U.S. Sen. Robert Griffin, now on the state supreme court.

All have endorsed McCain, but these days they are faint voices in a party headed by Engler and fellow conservatives.

Bush will continue campaigning in Michigan today and part of tomorrow, then head for California, the largest of the 11 states, including Maryland, that will hold primaries on March 7, "Super Tuesday."

Five other states will hold party caucuses that day.

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