McCain asks fellow Republicans to join his campaign, not fear it

Ariz. senator reaches out to party's establishment after wins in Mich., Ariz.

February 23, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PHOENIX -- Sen. John McCain, flush with the victory he desperately needed in Michigan and a landslide win in his home state of Arizona, reached out last night to the conservative Republicans whose support has eluded him in his race for the GOP presidential nomination.

"I am a proud Reagan Republican," he said in what he termed a "special plea" to fellow party members. "I love the Republican Party. It is my home."

McCain's support has come largely from Democrats and independents, while the majority of Republicans have flocked to his chief rival, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Now hurtling toward the large group of primaries two weeks away on Super Tuesday, McCain made it clear that he recognizes that many of the elections down the road will be confined to party members.

Calling on party members to rally to his banner, he said: "We are reformers, Republican reformers who can make our party bigger and change politics in this country for generations. "Don't fear this campaign, my fellow Republicans, join it, join it. This is where you belong."

Speaking to an exuberant band of supporters gathered at a resort here to celebrate his Michigan and Arizona successes, he sought to portray himself as the party's best hope to defeat Vice President Al Gore, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, in the general election.

"I will beat Al Gore like a drum," he said to the screams of his supporters. "We are creating a new majority, my friends, a McCain majority, and we are Al Gore's worst nightmare."

Secluded at in his Phoenix home for much of yesterday, McCain declared "Phew!" when his victory was called by the television networks.

He then jumped up and hugged his wife and senior aides, who had gathered there after a nervous afternoon spent following the ups and downs of exit polls that moved them from optimism to wariness and back again with each fresh wave of information.

Earlier, as vacationers frolicked around them, McCain's aides waited by the pool -- talking anxiously on their cell phones in the same clothes they wore in Michigan. But by last night, there was nothing but relief.

"It's McCain mania!" declared senior strategist Mike Murphy.

Claiming victory, McCain flashed multiple thumbs-up signs while his wife, Cindy, stood beaming beside him with the couple's four children.

The Arizona senator, who had compared his come-from-behind mission in Michigan to Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars" battling the forces of Darth Vader, celebrated by waving a plastic light saber at supporters.

McCain credited his win here to his reformist message -- a message his campaign said it lost in South Carolina, where Bush handily defeated McCain. Last night, McCain dubbed himself "the real reformer" -- an obvious reference to Bush, who since New Hampshire has been describing himself as a "reformer with results."

McCain strategists called last night a win that -- if it did not exceed the importance of his New Hampshire landslide this month -- certainly rivaled it because it showed that he can attract the independents and Democrats needed to win a general election.

"We showed the McCain coalition is tremendous," strategist Murphy said.

As McCain spoke, Murphy and campaign manager Rick Davis stood at the back of the room in a state of euphoria, screaming, "We love you, John!" They high-fived each other and Davis pretended to pound senior adviser Mark Salter on the head when McCain spoke of "beating Gore like a drum."

"I was worried, but this is as good as it gets," said McCain media strategist Greg Stevens. The campaign barreled into Michigan with a new strategy that played up McCain's message as a reformer and stopped the one-note attack on Bush as a negative campaigner, which backers believed had contributed to the South Carolina loss.

Last night, McCain celebrated the message that had brought him victory against an establishment machine in Michigan that seemed destined to overwhelm his skeleton Michigan operation, which consisted of one paid staffer and one supportive state senator.

"Many said the establishment would carry the day," he said. "Instead, you people did. Let me say to you directly tonight, to my many friends in Michigan, thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for standing with me."

McCain heads to the state of Washington today, which along with Virginia and North Dakota hold primaries next Tuesday.

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