Delegates, not votes, crucial for McCain on `Super Tuesday'

Without strong showing, his insurgent candidacy could run out of steam

March 02, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- As he sometimes does, Sen. John McCain spoke in the past tense yesterday about the future of his presidential candidacy.

"Look, it's been a great ride," he remarked, sounding almost wistful. On the morning after he was thoroughly thrashed by Texas Gov. George W. Bush in three more delegate contests, McCain insisted that he was pleased by his progress.

But the Straight Talk Express could soon run out of gas, Republican politicians warn, unless McCain rebounds impressively in next week's national primary.

McCain's last stand?

"It's probably his last stand," says Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster.

She and other neutral Republican strategists say McCain needs to win the California primary, in addition to sweeping contests in New York and the New England states on "Super Tuesday," to keep his nomination chances alive.

Bush, who leads in the national delegate count, figures to extend that advantage when six Southern states hold primaries on March 14. That has increased pressure on McCain to do well in Tuesday's coast-to-coast balloting, when 13 states, including Maryland, will conduct Republican delegate tests.

There were other signs that McCain's candidacy, which took off after his victory in New Hampshire just one month ago, might be starting to sputter.

Gary Bauer, the former presidential candidate who endorsed McCain and campaigned by his side in an effort to attract social conservatives, called yesterday for McCain to apologize for labeling the Christian conservative leaders Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell "agents of intolerance" in a speech this week.

McCain defended his remarks. However, he said he wanted to "correct" any misimpressions from what he claimed was a lighthearted reference to "evil influence" that some took as a fresh attack on the religious right.

During a campaign stop Tuesday in Bakersfield, Calif., McCain criticized Robertson and Falwell for "the evil influence that they exercise over the Republican Party." Yesterday, he said that he "obviously" wasn't calling them evil but was merely using one of his frequent analogies between his campaign and the "Star Wars" movies to talk about the "forces" he is challenging within the Republican Party.

The senator later issued a written statement saying that he regretted his "flip remark."

Meanwhile, a new poll in California, which McCain has called a must-win state, shows him lagging far behind Bush. The Los Angeles Times survey, completed one day before this week's primaries, shows Bush leading McCain by 21 percentage points among likely Republican voters statewide.

Lack of GOP support

For McCain, the most recent round of primary and caucus voting highlighted once again his insurgent campaign's most obvious weakness: an inability to attract enough Republican support to overcome Bush's enormous advantage among party regulars.

"McCain's got some problems with Republicans, and that's what he needs to address over the next six days," says Scott W. Reed, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.

Reed said it was too early to tell whether McCain's attack on Bush as an ally of intolerant religious conservatives would help the Arizona senator gain badly needed moderate Republican support, particularly in March 7 delegate tests in New York, California and Connecticut, where non-Republican votes don't count.

"Clearly, McCain has made it very personal, and how that works out remains to be told," Reed said.

The challenge for McCain and his advisers is to find a way of attracting additional mainstream Republican votes without alienating the independents and Democrats whose backing has been key to his success so far.

Yesterday, McCain sent mixed signals during a California campaign swing about what changes he might make to persuade more Republicans to back him.

In a comment reminiscent of his strategy shift in the midst of the South Carolina primary contest -- when he abruptly canceled a negative TV ad and vowed to run a positive campaign -- he said he now would turn away from political attacks and concentrate on policy issues instead.

"I'm going to focus, frankly, my campaign on that, rather than respond to continued assaults on my character," he told reporters after a morning rally here, 50 miles east of Los Angeles. "I think that the people of this country deserve a campaign based on the issues, and that's what I'm going to try and give them."

Sharp words continue

But in response to questions from voters and the news media, he continued to deliver sharply worded assaults on Bush and leaders of the Christian right movement.

Asked whether his description of Bush as a "Pat Robertson Republican" violated Ronald Reagan's "11th Commandment" that Republicans not attack one another, McCain replied that it didn't, because "it's an accurate description."

And he repeated his criticism of Robertson after a local woman praised McCain's "indictment of the pseudo-Christian right," which, she said, doesn't represent all Christians.

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