WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush regained his footing yesterday in his drive for the White House, claiming solid victories over his chief rival, John McCain, in Virginia and the two other states that held Republican contests yesterday.
Bush won all 56 delegates from Virginia, all 12 in Washington state, and 14 of 19 selected in North Dakota caucuses, restoring the luster to his presidential bid as the candidates head into the all-important "Super Tuesday" next week. On that day, 13 states, including California, New York and Maryland, will hold Republican primaries.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun gave an incorrect total for the number of delegates won by Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the Washington state primary. Bush won seven delegates. Arizona Sen. John McCain won five. The Sun regrets the error.
"We are uniting our party without compromising principle," the Texas governor told supporters at a rally last night in Cincinnati. "This campaign is winning, and we're doing it the right way. We are expanding our base without destroying our foundations."
In one potentially bright note for McCain, the Arizona senator was running about even with Bush early this morning when Washington state Republican voters were combined with those who participated in a separate, nonpartisan contest.
In the Democratic contest in Washington state yesterday, Vice President Al Gore easily defeated former Sen. Bill Bradley in a "beauty contest" primary that yielded no delegates but dealt a sharp setback to Bradley, who had campaigned intensely in the state and has yet to win a primary.
In addition to the nonpartisan primary in Washington, McCain's reformist message attracted Democrats and independents to Virginia's open Republican primary, particularly in the Washington suburbs of Northern Virginia, where officials reported an unusually high turnout.
But unlike in Michigan and New Hampshire, crossover voters in Virginia were too few to offset Bush's sizable support among core Republican voters. Exit polls indicated that some of these Republicans were energized by McCain's denunciation Monday of two leaders of the Christian right, Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
"The voters of Virginia have rejected pitting one religion against another," Bush declared.
McCain, now campaigning intensely in delegate-rich California, called Bush from his campaign bus to congratulate him on the Virginia win. But he downplayed its significance.
"It seems as if he has a Southern strategy here -- doing well in Southern states," McCain said of Bush, whose first major primary victory was in South Carolina.
Super Tuesday ahead
The far more important competition will come next week, the Arizona senator said, when states across the country will pick more than 600 delegates.
"We'll look forward to Super Tuesday, when we have a broad cross-section of America voting all on that same day, McCain sia.
Despite the signs of a Virginia backlash from his decision to take on Robertson and Falwell, McCain insisted that he had no regrets.
"We were way behind" there all along, he said, explaining that he figured he had little to lose in the winner-take-all primary but had an opportunity to make a point that might be better received in future primaries.
"We were talking nationally," he said, "not to Virginia."
Before yesterday's contests, McCain was slightly ahead of Bush in delegates: 96 to 93, with a total of 1,034 needed to secure the nomination.
Alan L. Keyes, the other candidate remaining in the GOP race, finished a distant third in Virginia and fared little better in North Dakota.
Democrats debate tonight
Gore and Bradley were intensely focused yesterday on California, where they are scheduled to debate tonight in what is seen as perhaps Bradley's last chance to grab a foothold in a nomination race in which Gore appears dominant.
Bush's success in Virginia comes a day after McCain lobbed a rhetorical grenade into the heart of the Christian right movement, which was already gearing up to mobilize voters for Bush.
In his final appearance in the state, McCain went to Virginia Beach, home of the Christian Coalition, and accused Robertson, the organization's leader, of "political intolerance." McCain also attacked Falwell, founder of the Virginia-based Moral Majority, as one of the "agents of intolerance."
The senator went on to call Bush, who had gained crucial support from religious conservatives -- particularly from Robertson -- in his South Carolina victory, a "Pat Robertson Republican."
McCain's gambit, likened by admirers to President Clinton's 1992 attack on rapper Sister Souljah for fostering hatred on the left, was intended for a moderate audience beyond Virginia -- particularly in California and New York, which also offers a rich trove of delegates next week.
McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, described the target audience as components of "the McCain majority that will allow us to win in the general election."
Another faction in the target group is Catholics, whom the McCain campaign is trying to win over by pointing to Bush's support among "Southern fundamentalists who have expressed anti-Catholic views."