Michigan victory puts McCain back in fight

Senator draws support outside GOP

only 49% of turnout Republican

Defeat for Bush, ally Engler

McCain also captures easy primary win in home state of Arizona

February 23, 2000|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DETROIT -- Sen. John McCain, riding the same wave of Democrats and independents that won for him in New Hampshire, put himself back in the thick of the Republican presidential race last night by defeating Gov. George W. Bush in the Michigan primary.

McCain also easily won the primary in his home state of Arizona, giving himself a two-state sweep, after his decisive loss to Bush on Saturday in the South Carolina primary.

"We took on the iron triangle of big money, lobbyists and legislation, and we won another battle," McCain told cheering supporters in Phoenix, repeating his familiar slogan. "So America won today, and our children won."

FOR THE RECORD - In Wednesday's editions of The Sun, an article about the Michigan Republican primary misstated the proportion of Democrats and independents among those who voted. About 35 percent of the voters identified themselves as independents and 17 percent as Democrats.
The Sun regrets the error.

McCain's double victory raises the stakes for the showdown between him and the Texas governor March 7, "Super Tuesday," when 13 states, including California, New York and Maryland, will hold Republican primaries or caucuses.

Only four of those states -- Georgia, Missouri, Ohio and Vermont -- will hold open primaries in which Democrats and independents can vote, as they could here and in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Speaking in Kansas City, Mo., last night, Bush congratulated McCain but contended that top Democratic officials in Michigan had mounted a concerted effort to turn out Democratic voters for McCain as a way to spoil Bush's run for the nomination.

"I am confident that when we have the Republican primary and the Democrat primary on the same day, it's going to make it awful hard for some of those Democrats who are trying to come into our primary to affect the election," the Texas governor said.

A third candidate, Alan L. Keyes, a conservative Maryland talk-show host, finished a distant third in both primaries.

Polls of voters as they left ballot places indicated that a combination of McCain's huge advantage among non-Republican voters, along with his personal appeal and voter support for policies espoused by the Arizona senator, carried the day for him.

Exit polls indicated, strikingly, that only about half of the turnout for the Republican primary was Republican (49 percent). About 33 percent of the voters identified themselves as Democratic and 18 percent as independent.

Forty-seven percent said they were conservative, compared with 31 percent who called themselves moderate and 17 percent who said they were liberal.

Despite Bush's efforts, after losing the New Hampshire primary, to sell himself as "a reformer with results," more Michigan voters said they saw McCain, who had been campaigning as a reformer from the start, as the real thing. About 68 percent of voters who were questioned said they favored campaign finance reform, one of McCain's signature causes.

Contentention on the budget

On a central point of difference between McCain and Bush -- what to do with the federal budget surplus -- 49 percent agreed with McCain that it should be used to fix Social Security and pay down the federal debt, compared with 40 percent who said they backed Bush's plan for a deep tax cut.

On a personal level, 65 percent gave McCain a favorable rating and 29 percent a negative one, compared with 58 percent who gave a positive rating to Bush and 39 percent who gave him a negative one. During the campaign here, both candidates were criticized for resorting to attack politics.

The result in Michigan was a blow not only to Bush's hopes of driving McCain from the race but also to Gov. John Engler of Michigan, who had worked tirelessly for the Texas governor and accompanied him on his last-hours blitz around the state.

Engler toiled amid speculation that Bush might select him as his running mate if Bush is nominated as president. That possibility probably vanished in the ashes of Bush's Michigan defeat.

The Michigan Republican primary was the first held in a major industrial state with an ethnic and racial composition more nearly reflecting that of the nation than the earlier tests in New Hampshire, Delaware and South Carolina. The turnout was also the largest so far.

The candidates had less than three days to sell themselves to Michigan voters, and they campaigned frenetically to succeed. Bush had the advantage of Engler and his establishment Republican organization, which had been working toward the primary for more than half a year. But it wasn't enough in the face of overwhelming backing for McCain among Michigan Democrats and independents.

Heightened acrimony

The Michigan campaign was long enough, however, to heighten the acrimony between the two main contenders that had arisen in South Carolina.

Bush had launched attacks on McCain in New Hampshire, while the Arizona senator sought to stay above the fray. But in South Carolina, a negative McCain ad gave Bush the chance to play the injured party.

McCain, noting how Bill Bradley had slipped after failing to respond immediately to attacks on him by Vice President Al Gore, said he had to respond to Bush's charges that he accepted campaign contributions from lobbyists who did business before the Senate Commerce Committee chaired by McCain.

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