Bush cheered by lead in polls

Texan visits Calif., hopes to trounce McCain in key race

March 06, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Gov. George W. Bush kicked off his stretch run for tomorrow's big round of Republican presidential primaries energized by new polls that show him leading Sen. John McCain in most of the major states, including Maryland.

Looking and sounding extremely confident, Bush arrived yesterday in rain-soaked California, where he hopes to deliver a decisive blow to McCain on the nation's biggest-ever primary day. "There's something in the air here in this great state," he told 200 enthusiastic supporters at a rally here. "It feels like victory in the state of California."

The latest polling shows Bush leading McCain by a wide margin in the fight for California's GOP convention delegates. According to a poll released yesterday by Zogby International, Bush holds about a 20-percentage-point lead over McCain in the Republican primary, an edge that has remained fairly constant over the past week.

In New York, which has emerged as the most important state for McCain's survival, Bush leads by only six points, according to the Zogby survey.

In Maryland, once considered fertile territory for Naval Academy graduate McCain, the survey showed Bush leading by 23 percentage points.

Among independents, who are eligible to vote in the Maryland Republican primary, Bush and McCain are tied, the poll showed. Among registered Republicans, Bush holds a 2-to-1 advantage, ac- cording to the survey.

McCain, appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," said the discouraging poll results are "probably helpful to us, because when we do better than that, they say [we] exceeded expectations. So much of this is an expectations game."

McCain won the endorsement yesterday of the New York Times, which praised him as a "zestful insurgent" who "has brought gusts of fresh air, excitement and common sense to American politics."

Sounding almost cocky, Bush shrugged off his rival's backing from all of New York City's major dailies. "John can win the newspaper endorsements in New York, and I'll take the vote," he told reporters.

In California, the biggest Super Tuesday prize, Bush is so far ahead in the delegate race that two other goals are assuming greater importance for his campaign.

The first is to defeat McCain in the state's new blanket primary, a nonbinding "beauty contest" vote in which Democrats, Republicans and independents pick from a ballot that includes all the candidates in every party.

Best chance?

Bush appears to have won a similar vote last week in Washington state. According to the latest count there, he leads McCain by less than 10,000 votes out of about 1.1 million cast.

If the governor can win the popular vote in California, it would undercut McCain's claim that he is the Republican with the best chance to defeat Vice President Al Gore in November.

John Weaver, the McCain campaign's political director, conceded it would be futile to try to play down the significance of California to McCain's nomination chances. "You can't spin how important it is," he said. "I'm not going to try."

Defeating McCain in tomorrow's major contests -- the Arizona senator is favored only in four New England states -- is Bush's overriding objective, since that could well force McCain out of the race.

But Bush's other aim, campaign aides say, is to outperform Gore, the likely Democratic nominee, in the popular vote in California's blanket primary.

According to the Zogby survey, Gore holds a statistically insignificant lead among all California voters with 28 percent to Bush's 27 percent. McCain was third with 22 percent, followed by former Sen. Bill Bradley at 8 percent and Republican Alan L. Keyes at 2 percent, according to the statewide poll, which had a possible error margin of 5 percentage points.

Finishing ahead of Gore in California "would be the ultimate coup" for Bush, says Mark DiCamillo, director of the independent Field Poll. He said Bush's final campaign swing, which began in the heavily Democratic San Francisco Bay area and continued through the state's agricultural Central Valley, a swing-voter area, appeared designed to "run up the numbers" for Bush in the beauty contest.

No Republican has won the presidency in the past 100 years without carrying California. And with one-fifth of the electoral votes needed to win in November, it figures to be a major battleground.

But the state is considered more important for the Democratic nominee, who has carried it in the last two presidential elections. California has become part of the Democrats' electoral-vote base, while Republicans have the South to fall back on.

It was not lost on local political analysts that President Clinton chose to make a two-day fund-raising visit to northern California late last week, the first time he has visited a state in the run-up to a delegate contest this year. DiCamillo speculated that Clinton, who remains highly popular among California Democrats, was trying to boost Gore's vote in the blanket primary.


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