WASHINGTON -- It ain't over yet. Sen. John McCain's electrifying double victory in Michigan and Arizona last night throws the Republican presidential nomination up for grabs.
Two weeks before the March 7 primaries that were supposed to end the race, Texas Gov. George W. Bush's hold on the front-runner's spot has been loosened, if not broken. And the odds that the competition could stretch well into next month, or beyond, just got longer.
McCain's remarkable comeback, three days after getting throttled by Bush in the South Carolina primary, has given his upstart campaign a fresh shot of energy.
It also has raised serious questions about the potency of Bush's candidacy, in particular his ability to attract the independent voters needed to win a general election.
"People like to see a winner," said Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster who is neutral. "George Bush has just had the inevitability of his candidacy punctured, which was his greatest strength."
Even if Bush recovers and goes on to win the nomination, he is likely to leave the primary season in far weaker shape, financially and politically, than anyone might have expected a month ago.
His vaunted campaign bank account -- a record $70 million -- has been seriously depleted by the expensive effort to crush McCain, which is costing Bush about $3 million a week. Bush aides point out -- correctly -- that he can replenish his supply of campaign cash in the weeks and months ahead.
But he might have more difficulty repairing recent political damage. Bush was hurt in Michigan by his high-profile support from Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson and by Bush's visit to the campus of fundamentalist Bob Jones University in South Carolina, which has a history of anti-Catholic prejudice.
Rich Bond, a former national Republican chairman, said the issue of anti-Catholic bias, which was used against Bush in the final hours of the Michigan campaign, is likely to remain an enormous problem.
"I think George Bush will rue the day that he went to Bob Jones University, either now, in the primaries or in the general election," said Bond, a Bush supporter and a Catholic.
Catholic backers counted
One measure of the alarm with which the Bush camp regards the issue was the raft of statements his campaign released yesterday from prominent Catholic supporters. Among those expressing outrage that Bush was being accused of anti-Catholic prejudice were three U.S. senators and nine governors, including his brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, who is a convert to Catholicism.
McCain, who has needed the votes of independents and Democrats to keep him in the race, faces a profound problem of his own: He has yet to demonstrate that he can persuade enough Republicans to support him. Unless he does, his campaign could falter as the race heads into primary and caucus states where only registered Republicans are allowed to participate.
In Michigan, where anyone could vote in the GOP primary and there was no Democratic election, Bush took more than two of every three Republican votes, according to exit polls. Even with a large turnout, however, there were not enough Republicans to decide the outcome of their party's primary.
`Rent Democrats for a day'
Bush's leading supporter in the state, three-term Republican Gov. John Engler, said McCain isn't party-building, "he's party-borrowing." Engler attributed Bush's defeat to McCain's ability to "rent Democrats for a day."
Exit polls confirmed that McCain relied more heavily than he did in earlier states on the support of independents and Democrats, who cast more than half of the votes in Michigan.
His defenders call that proof that McCain's populist appeal is bringing new voters into the party, including Catholics, blacks and other traditionally Democratic constituencies. And they point to recent national polls that show McCain would run much better than Bush against Vice President Al Gore, the likely Democratic nominee, in test matchups for the November election.
"This is the political message: `Hello, Republican Party. You have to win independents and Democrats to win a general election. And you need to carry the swing independent voters to carry a state like Michigan, which is a crucial state,' " said Marshall Wittman of the conservative Heritage Foundation, a McCain supporter.
For McCain's campaign, the hope is that the news of his Michigan victory will overwhelm the curious details that lay behind it: Republicans accounted for fewer than half of the votes in the GOP primary, a smaller share than in any party primary in recent history. There were also suggestions in the exit poll data that McCain owed his victory margin to a Democratic protest against Engler.
In his victory speech last night, McCain shifted away from his message of reaching out to independents and began grappling with the challenge of convincing Republicans that he's the same "conservative reformer" he has been throughout his 18-year congressional career.