McCain support poses puzzle

Democrats provide wins, but would they be there in November?

February 25, 2000|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- To the John McCain camp, the Democrats who rallied to the senator's side in the Michigan Republican primary were reform-minded swing voters who have been attracted in the past to candidates like Ross Perot and Patrick J. Buchanan.

But to the George W. Bush team, the McCain Democrats -- who gave the Arizona senator his margin of victory Tuesday -- were mischief-makers, out to toy with the Republican race.

Pollsters, pundits and politicians are still chewing over the identities of the Democrats who voted for McCain and the meaning of their show of support for him.

Were they typical of moderate Democrats across the country who are attracted to the candidate and would vote for him against a Democrat in the fall?

Or were these voters just bent on roiling the Republican race, in the same spirit of the contrarians who gave the Republican primary to the elder George Bush in 1980, even after Ronald Reagan had virtually clinched the nomination?

Analysts are divided on the answers. But McCain is building a theme around the crossover support of the McCain Democrats to show that he, unlike the Texas governor, can build a broader Republican majority to reclaim the White House.

"We are putting the Reagan coalition back together," said Dan Schnur, McCain's communications director. "For the first time in 20 years, we're seeing Republicans, independents and swing Democrats coalesce around a common theme, and that's reform.

"We're confident the overwhelming majority of Democrats who voted for McCain did so because they want him to be president, not because they were looking to mess around in somebody else's primary."

Yet such a coalition, even if it exists beyond Michigan, will be of little use to McCain unless he can capture more Republican votes. In the next two weeks, he will head into such delegate-rich states as California and New York, and smaller states such as Maryland, where Democrats cannot participate in the GOP selection of delegates.

As a result, says Ed Sarpolus, a Michigan pollster, "the advantage is still Bush's for the nomination."

In his speeches since Tuesday night, McCain has made an open pitch for Republican voters, trying to persuade them that, with his proven appeal to Democrats and independents, he is the more electable Republican in a general election.

His greatest opportunities ahead are in the open primaries in which Democrats can vote, as well as in states such as Massachusetts and New York, with large populations of moderate Republicans.

Sarpolus, a pollster for the Detroit Free Press, and other analysts say that interviews with voters revealed the vast majority of McCain Democrats to have been captivated by the Arizona senator -- especially by his image as a straight-talker and reformer -- with only a few acknowledging a desire simply to rattle the Republican nominating process.

Sarpolus, who has been tracking Michigan's so-called Reagan Democrats for 20 years, said the McCain Democrats are a different breed. Most of the Reagan Democrats "are either dead or in their 70s or 80s," he says. Yet the two groups are similar in ideology and demographics.

"It's their children," says the pollster, who grew up in Michigan's Macomb County. That county's Democratic voters became a symbol for the many Democrats nationwide who helped elect Reagan in 1980, and it was the first place McCain visited in the state this month.

According to exit polls, McCain's Democratic supporters were predominantly middle-aged, working-class men with less than a college education and an annual income of about $45,000. They saw McCain as a plain-spoken regular guy, Sarpolus says, rather than as a programmed politician, liked his fiscal policies, were less concerned with his stand on social issues and were impressed by his character.

"The candidate who seems to tell it like it is is the one who gets these types of votes," he said.

Those who identified themselves as Democrats made up 17 percent of the total vote in Michigan; of those, 83 percent backed McCain. And more than 60 percent of the McCain Democrats said they were very certain or somewhat certain to vote for McCain in the general election, according to Sarpolus' exit polls.

"That's pretty strong," Sarpolus said.

John Cavanagh, another pollster, suggested that it would be self-defeating for Democrats to vote for McCain out of any mischievous motives since, according to recent nationwide polls, the Arizona senator poses a greater threat to a Democratic nominee than Bush does.

Still, a number of the Democrats who voted in Michigan's Republican primary did acknowledge that they cast their ballots to cause trouble and embarrass Gov. John Engler, a leading Bush ally who is highly unpopular among the state's Democrats.

On NBC's "Today" show, Bush tried to knock down the idea of a "McCain majority," saying those Democrats and independents would not stick with the candidate in a general election.

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