McCain attack on Christian right backfires

Bush takes delegate lead

Both GOP candidates seek to gain momentum ahead of `Super Tuesday'

March 01, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LOS ANGELES -- One tallies votes. The other counts delegates.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain not only view the Republican Party differently. They're also taking divergent approaches to the presidential contest.

Bush, zeroing in on the chase for delegates to this summer's Republican national convention, snapped up yesterday his biggest haul yet. He swept the contests in Virginia, Washington state and North Dakota, seizing the lead in the GOP delegate count.

McCain, seeking a needed burst of momentum heading into next week's "Super Tuesday," was looking for at least a popular vote victory in Washington state, where returns were incomplete early today, to reinforce his contention that he's the party's best hope to win in November.

Yesterday's primary in Virginia was a setback for McCain, even though he was considered the underdog.

The Arizona senator, who made the boldest gamble of his campaign by denouncing leaders of the Christian right on the eve of the election, had hoped that a big turnout of independents and Democrats might trigger an upset, or at least make the outcome close.

Instead, Bush won easily, picking up three of every four Republican votes in the process. That will cheer his supporters as the campaign heads into the big states of New York and California, where only Republican votes count toward the awarding of delegates to the national convention, and McCain is within striking distance.

Independents and Democrats cast one-third of the Virginia ballots, a respectable response to McCain's effort to expand the party. However, the big turnout by Republicans indicates that party regulars, at least in the South, are not prepared to desert Bush.

Exit poll data showed Bush and McCain evenly splitting the votes of Virginians who do not identify with the religious right. That could allow McCain aides to argue that Bush's victory was delivered by what the senator has called "Pat Robertson Republicans."

But religious conservatives are an integral part of the Republican Party. Even here in socially moderate California, they cast roughly one in five GOP votes.

Their votes will continue to influence the outcome of primaries around the country. And that could give Bush the delegate muscle he needs to keep McCain supporters from thinking they might take the nomination away at the convention, if the senator fails to win a majority of the delegates in the primaries.

What the Virginia results also suggest is that McCain -- by condemning leaders of the Christian right -- has effectively written off the South, a Republican stronghold for decades, in the nomination contest.

McCain's attack on Robertson, head of the Christian Coalition, and Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, handed Bush his most lopsided margin yet among religious conservatives. By a ratio of 8-to-1, those who identified themselves as members of the religious right supported the Texas governor.

Even if McCain knew that his Virginia Beach speech might hurt him in Virginia, Bush's easy triumph in the Old Dominion, on the heels of his South Carolina victory last month, signals his dominance in the South. It indicates that Bush could sweep all of the primaries across the region later this month, making it much more diffi- cult for McCain to catch him in the delegate competition.

McCain, meanwhile, is increasingly emphasizing his advantage in matchups for the fall election. National opinion polls show that he runs much further ahead of Vice President Al Gore, the likely Democratic nominee, than does Bush.

On Monday, McCain described Bush as "a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore."

Yesterday, McCain aimed his sights at California, the top prize in next Tuesday's primaries. Campaigning in the state's Central Valley, the senator argued that he -- not Bush -- can carry the state in the general election.

"I now firmly believe that I -- only -- can make that happen this year," McCain said. "I'm the one who can beat Al Gore this fall."

Vital to McCain's insurgent strategy is a victory in California's "blanket primary." Recent polling shows Bush leading among registered Republicans in the state, whose votes decide who will win the huge 162-delegate lode.

Since all of the candidates in all parties are listed on the same ballot, Democrats and independents can vote for McCain, even though their votes won't count toward the delegate tally. Recent private polls show McCain in a virtual dead heat with Bush in the broader popularity contest.

As in Washington state, McCain is hoping for at least a popular-vote victory in California.

"I need to win [California]," said McCain, who could be expected to claim victory in the Golden State even if he loses all of the delegates to Bush.

McCain will also need a victory in New York and possibly Ohio, the other big state tests next week, to lend credibility to his claim to be the most electable Republican.

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