McCain must zero in on GOP stalwarts

February 24, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover | Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover,Tribune Media Services

DETROIT -- On the night of Sen. John McCains twin primary victories in Michigan and Arizona, he happily proclaimed in Phoenix: I am a proud Reagan conservative. I love the Republican Party. It is my home.

It was a declaration that certainly would not warm the hearts of the Democrats and independents who flocked to the polls for him here in Michigan and overwhelmed the establishment Republicans rallied to the cause of Texas Gov. George W. Bush by three-term Gov. John Engler.

But a glance at the primary calendar ahead shows why it had to be said. Of the 11 state primaries to be held on Super Tuesday, March 7, when more than half the delegates needed for nomination will be chosen, only four -- in Georgia, Missouri, Ohio and Vermont -- will be completely open for Democrats and independents to vote.

In Washington state next Tuesday (Feb. 29) and in California on March 7, they can cast ballots in the Republican primaries, but their votes will be tallied only in the grand total. Using coded ballots in California, votes of non-Republicans will be segregated out so that they are not part of the vote that will determine the allocation of delegates to the partys national convention.

In this scheme, it is possible that one candidate may win the total vote and another the sanitized pure Republican vote -- an invitation for wild spinning of the results on election night.

More significant for McCain -- and Bush -- is the fact that in six of the other seven Super Tuesday primaries, only Republicans will choose the winner. In the seventh, Maryland, registered independent can vote, but not registered Democrats.

The invasion of non-Republicans in the Michigan primary produced much wailing by Bush and his chief surrogate, Engler. The Michigan governor charged after the results were in here that McCain had rented Democratic voters for the day who would go back to the Democratic fold tomorrow and start beating our brains out again.

There is probably some truth to that, in that some Democratic leaders in Detroit openly urged Democrats to vote in the GOP primary to embarrass Engler, their arch-foe. McCain said before the primary he didnt want Democrats to vote for him as part of a vendetta against Engler, but he didnt reject their votes when cast.

McCain defends the non-Republican votes he gets as part of his effort to broaden the party beyond the old establishment as represented by Engler and the host of other GOP governors who have boarded the Bush bandwagon.

But from his remarks in Phoenix the other night, its clear that he knows he must do better with regular Republicans if he is to weather the avalanche of votes to be cast in the GOP primaries on Super Tuesday that bar Democratic crossovers.

In the weeks just ahead, Bush can be expected to zero in on McCains disagreements with his own party on such issues as campaign finance reform, and paint him as less of an anti-abortion Republican than himself. Surviving these assaults will require a dicey tightrope walk by McCain.

But if McCain can continue to take state primaries from Bush, starting with next Tuesdays vote in Washington state, where Democrats and independents again can raid the Republican primary, he may encourage many Republicans to start rethinking the GOP gospel of the last year -- that Bush should be nominated because he has the best chance to beat the likely Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore.

McCains rousing promise that if nominated he will beat Al Gore like a drum over his 1996 fund-raising excesses -- escalated the other night to proclaiming himself Al Gores worst nightmare -- reminds Republicans that the combativeness he now demonstrates pushing his reform issues can be turned against the Democrats in the fall.

The latest Gallup Poll for CNN and USA Today has McCain beating Gore by a wider margin than Bush does. That should help remind fellow Republicans that he is still a proud Reagan conservative who loves the Grand Old Party.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 1999).

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