Lion's share of suspense lies on the Republican side

Gore appears unbeatable

McCain must take N.Y., New England to stay alive

March 07, 2000|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Here is how to follow the primary election returns tonight:

On the Republican side, there is only one serious question. Can John McCain win enough delegates to sustain his campaign against George W. Bush for another week?

Or, put another way, can the Texas governor be prevented from capturing enough delegates so that he is virtually certain to accumulate the 1,034 needed for the Republican nomination in the six southern states where he and McCain will compete next Tuesday?

On the Democratic side, there is little suspense. Vice President Al Gore holds a commanding lead over Bill Bradley in every state being contested. So a Bradley primary victory anywhere would confound the poll-takers and political professionals across the board.

If Bradley is going to score a surprise, it will be apparent early in either Vermont or Maine, both states in which Democrats sometimes run against the grain.

But a couple of quirky results in small states wouldn't change Gore's seemingly inexorable march to the nomination.

McCain musts

There are two imperatives for McCain in the Republican results tonight.

First, he must win the popular vote and almost all of the delegates in the five New England states whose ballots will be counted early: Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont. These are all states with significant numbers of moderate Republicans and all states that usually are influenced by what happened earlier in New Hampshire, where McCain won easily.

If McCain loses here, viewers can safely tune out. The fat lady has sung and the only question will be when McCain folds his campaign.

The second essential for the Arizona Republican is a clear majority of New York's 101 delegates -- the eight that go to the statewide winner and perhaps 70 of the 93 that will be awarded on a winner-take-all basis in the state's 31 congressional districts.

If McCain doesn't win both New York and New England, the Republican competition is essentially over and the story is drained of suspense. Bush will be assured of more than 400 of the 619 delegates being elected tonight, enough so that the 341 at stake next week could put him over the top or very close.

If Bush reaches a level even 100 or so delegates short of his majority next Tuesday, there will be heavy pressure even from McCain supporters for the Arizona senator to step aside in the interest of party unity.

Assuming, however, that McCain's campaign is still alive after New York, the focus will be on three other states where there is still a modicum of doubt.

Ohio -- Bush is such a strong favorite here that McCain could get a lift simply by winning one-fourth to one-third of the 69 delegates at stake. Because he lost in Michigan, the Texas governor still needs to prove he has strength in an industrial state.

Maryland -- The Arizona senator needs to win the delegates of three or four districts. If McCain cannot carry the overwhelmingly moderate 8th district -- meaning Montgomery County -- turn out the lights. The key here for McCain is a substantial independent turnout.

Missouri -- Although Bush has been holding a comfortable lead in opinion polls here, the open primary rules allowing independents and Democrats to cross over give McCain at least a long-odds chance.

Bush territory

There is less ambiguity about the outlook in the other two states voting today:

Georgia -- Bush is a prohibitive favorite and anything less than a victory by a large margin would signal some heretofore undetected weakness in the Texas Republican's candidacy.

California -- By the time the decision is reached here on the richest prize of the night, 162 delegates awarded winner-take-all, the result may be anti-climactic. If McCain already has lost New York or New England, Bush won't need California to be in position to clinch the nomination next week.

Bush is favored to win the Republican vote for delegates and the popular vote of all who cast ballots. Should he lose, the political world of the Republicans will be turned upside down once again just as it was after earlier primaries in South Carolina and Michigan and again after Washington and Virginia last week.

On the other hand, if McCain has jumped through the earlier hoops by winning New York and New England plus a few delegates scattered elsewhere, the Arizona senator can compete in a few Florida congressional districts next week even after losing California.

And that, in turn, would nourish the hope in the McCain campaign of keeping the contest alive for the March 21 Illinois and April 4 Pennsylvania primaries.

Such a scenario is obviously so fanciful and fragile it could be dissolved by a McCain defeat in New York. It's that simple.

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