Scissors in the big tent

March 02, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- The Republicans who live along the shores of Lake Ontario here have generally been moderate to progressive in their politics.

They tended to elect centrist Republicans, as well as Democrats, to Congress and the state legislature. In 1980 they supported George Bush over Ronald Reagan. And in 1992 and 1996, many of them defected from the Republican line to vote for Bill Clinton because they thought the religious right had gained too much influence in the party.

Thus, on the face of it, this should be good ground for John S. McCain to make his case that Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition have become the tail wagging the Republican dog.

"A lot of people felt that in the last two elections we went too far to placate the Christian right," said John Bouchard, the party activist leading the McCain operation in Monroe County.

But conversations with perhaps three dozen Republicans in the 48 hours after Mr. McCain launched his attack on Pat Robertson show little evidence that voters are even aware of the controversy. And some see it as an unfair suggestion that Gov. George W. Bush of Texas is anti-Catholic.

"I don't like Bush," said Teresa Roncallo, a Republican accountant, "but I don't think he's against the Catholics. My problem is he just lacks the experience."

Steve Minarik, the county Republican chairman and leading Bush supporter, said that if Mr. McCain hoped to inspire a moderate backlash against Bush, "he made a strategic mistake."

"It may work in the city [New York] but it isn't going to work up here," he said.

The outcome here Tuesday is critical. New York is one of the states that allows only Republicans to cast ballots in its primary. So Mr. McCain has to demonstrate that he can reach a majority of his own party and not rely on independent and Democratic votes.

The first indicators suggest Mr. McCain's decision to confront the power of the religious right is not paying dividends. In the Virginia primary earlier this week, the Protestant fundamentalists voted 8-1 for Mr. Bush over Mr. McCain. No corresponding outpouring of moderates compensated for the backlash.

Mr. Bouchard, Mr. McCain's coordinator, professes to be undismayed. "What's past is not prologue here," he said. "New York is not going to be affected by what happened in Virginia."

It is far from clear, however, how many voters are being influenced by the controversy and, by contrast, how many see it as just another manifestation of negative politics.

"These guys are gutting each other every day," said the proprietor of a small restaurant who wanted to remain anonymous. "I like this McCain, but I don't believe Bush is a bad guy. This arguing about Pat Robertson is the same old stuff."

Unsurprisingly, Bush supporter Mr. Minarik puts an edge on his assessment. "We have a big tent here, and John McCain seems to want to cut part of it out," he said.

Both sides here expect an impressive turnout Tuesday. "I have 60 or 70 people making phone calls to enrolled Republicans and the response to McCain has been tremendous," said Mr. Bouchard, a former state legislator and unsuccessful congressional candidate.

The enthusiasm for the Arizona senator, he said, is being fueled by, among other things, the unusual experience of a New York presidential primary being held early enough in the schedule to be influential rather than, as in the past, in early April, when the decisions usually have been made.

"New York never had a voice in naming a nominee since I've been an adult," said 44-year-old Mr. Bouchard.

Mr. Minarik foresees turnout here reaching 30 percent, compared with only 19 percent in the primary won by Bob Dole four years ago.

Random conversations with voters find clear evidence that Mr. McCain has made himself a player in New York, if not the favorite. And, as in New Hampshire and Michigan, his appeal grows out of his reputation for independence. As Marianne Jennings, a cosmetics dealer, said, "McCain's different enough so I feel like he's got the best chance of beating [Al] Gore."

But McCain's attack on Pat Robertson may not have helped even with partisans. "I saw that on television," said Jennings, "and I didn't think it was very seemly, to tell you the truth."

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from

cf01 The Sun's

cf03 Washington Bureau.

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