"It's very refreshing, especially coming from a Republican," said Donnette Edly, a member of the Green Party.
McCain aides insist that they did not expect that targeting religious conservatives would pay instant political dividends. Certainly, the returns from Virginia and Washington state, where McCain had hoped to do much better, did not produce any clear evidence that it was working.
Votes vs. delegates
In Washington state, McCain's extensive campaigning had raised expectations that he would win the popular vote cast by Republicans, Democrats and independents. But it was Bush who came away with the bragging rights. The latest vote totals showed him in first place, ahead of McCain and Vice President Al Gore.
"It's a sign of what's going to happen in California," Bush said, referring to the similar system in this state. Only registered Republican votes will count toward the award of California's 162 delegates, while a separate, nonbinding popular vote total will also be reported.
McCain was asked whether it was fair that he might win the popular vote and not win a single delegate here, which is a distinct possibility.
"I would hope not -- that would be a real death-star scenario," he said, lapsing into "Star Wars"-speak.
McCain aides acknowledged that it probably wouldn't be enough for him to simply win the popular vote in California.
"What we really want to win are the delegate votes," said Ken Khachigian, a California adviser. "This is a Republican primary."
McCain disputed the latest public polls in California, claiming that private surveys show him running less than 10 percentage points behind Bush among Republican voters and gaining by 1 or 2 points a day.
`A lot at stake'
And in arguing that he doesn't need to radically alter his message to make it more appealing to core Republican voters, he pointed to published polls that show him leading Bush in New York and other Northeastern states that vote next week. More than 600 delegates -- almost two-thirds of the number needed to win the nomination -- are up for grabs on Tuesday.
The 63-year-old candidate reflected on the frenzied pace of his first national campaign as the Super Tuesday showdown nears. To others, the primaries might seem to be coming one on top of the next, he said. But from his perspective, there appears to be "about two or three years between them."
With next week's vote still seemingly far off, McCain said, the outcome will not be what anyone expects, "because every prediction so far has been wrong, including mine."
But "there's a lot at stake," he acknowledged. "There's no doubt about that. I've thought all along that [the nomination] would probably be determined, to a large degree, by what happens next Tuesday."