Bush's 50-state strategy drains campaign chest

Broad approach instead of selective campaigning costs $60 million already

February 29, 2000|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Gov. George W. Bush, armed with more campaign money than any previous presidential candidate has ever collected, says he is waging a 50-state strategy for the Republican nomination. That means establishing campaign organizations in every state to be prepared for a long, grueling nomination fight and the general election beyond.

The strategy has proved a costly one for Bush, who has already spent about $60 million of the nearly $70 million he has raised. His chief rival, Sen. John McCain, has spent about $28 million. McCain has about $10 million left to wage guerrilla warfare one state at a time, picking his spots and hoping to survive.

Karl Rove, Bush's chief strategist, said his candidate has visited 38 states since last summer and has campaign chairmen in place in every state, with leaders down to the county level in many of them.

By contrast, McCain, who lacked Bush's financial resources from the start, rejected a 50-state strategy. He ducked the Iowa caucuses and the Delaware primary and harvested his limited resources for states he calculated were his best early shots, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Michigan, which the Arizona senator won, was almost an afterthought. Only then could he begin to focus on March 7, Super Tuesday, when 11 states will hold Republican primaries and two others will hold caucuses.

"We've looked at this more as a sprint than a marathon, and New Hampshire showed that our focus was right," said Howard Opinsky, a spokesman for McCain. "History shows that the race rarely goes through all 50 states in a contested primary."

Despite Bush's decisive losses in New Hampshire and Michigan, Rove says, the Bush campaign is still on course for the nomination. The plan from the outset, he said, was "to go for the early win, and if that was not possible, run in Republican contests everywhere."

The prospects for that "early win" seemed strong before New Hampshire. Seven candidates from the pre-Iowa Republican field had already been driven out of the race by the Texas governor's money and appearance of inevitability as the party nominee.

But now, with McCain showing strength before Super Tuesday, Bush's 50-state strategy could prove to be his salvation and could complicate McCain's ability to compete in all the contests that day. Or it could amount to pouring a fortune down a black hole.

Opinsky contended that Bush, in "keeping the 50-state strategy afloat," has spent money in places where it hasn't had much effect and that as a result Bush's cash advantage has been diminished.

Even in the jet age, the candidates can't be everywhere at once. They will be sorely strained by both time and money to visit even most of the Super Tuesday states between now and March 7. Rove says Bush will visit all of them, but McCain probably will pick his spots.

Bush's 50-state strategy, Rove says, actually covers the contests for both the Republican nomination and the general election, on the assumption that Bush will be the nominee.

"You've got to start building organizations and have a shakedown in the primaries" to be effective in the general election in the fall, he says. The McCain campaign, by contrast, isn't looking that far down the road.

With the presidential 2000 campaign moving away from early psychological victories to the accumulation of delegates, the prime target states for March 7 are easily identified: California, which will choose a whopping 367 Democratic and 162 Republican delegates to the two major-party conventions; New York, which will pick 243 Democratic and 101 Republican delegates, and Ohio, which will elect 146 Democratic and 69 Republican delegates.

The other March 7 primary states include Maryland (68 Democratic, 31 Republican), Connecticut (54D, 25R), Georgia (77, 54), Maine (23, 14), Massachusetts (93, 37), Missouri (75, 35), Rhode Island (22, 14) and Vermont (15, 12).

The Democratic convention, to be held in mid-August, will have almost twice as many delegates as the Republican convention, which is scheduled for late July and early August.

Bush's decision to finance his pre-convention campaign without federal assistance gives him a major advantage over his opponents, McCain and Alan Keyes. By declining the federal subsidy all the others are taking, Bush is bound by no spending limits. By taking the subsidy, the others are required to observe state limits on how much they spend, even if they can raise gobs of cash.

McCain's response has been to abandon any pretense of running in all 50 states and to focus his resources on what his strategists see as winnable states. In skipping the Iowa caucuses in which Bush's money scared off several Republican hopefuls, for example, McCain was able to pour his limited resources into New Hampshire as his first test against the well-heeled front-runner.

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