Super Tuesday could be end of primary fight

McClain-Bradley losses likely would put them out of race

Leaders act like winners

March 07, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Voters in 16 states from California to Maryland will stream to the polls today to decide whether Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore will all but seize their parties' presidential nominations or whether the insurgent campaigns of John McCain and Bill Bradley will live to fight another round.

With voter surveys showing the front-runners in command in today's primaries and caucuses, the Texas governor and the vice president turned their attention to their next tasks.

Gore trained his sights on the general election, excoriating Bush's record on health care. And Bush began trying to heal the rifts in the Republican Party wrought by a bruising fight with McCain.

"I don't think the fracture is much of a fracture," Bush said at a rally in San Diego yesterday, reaching out to the independent voters who fed McCain's surge.

"I really don't," he said. "Our party is enthused and excited. John deserves credit for bringing people into the party, and I deserve a lot of credit for exciting the party."

McCain barnstormed through California, hoping to ignite a brush fire that would at least lift him to victory in the Golden State's nonbinding popular vote, even if he loses the delegate contest there.

The Arizona senator continued to lash out at Bush and his two Texas allies who financed a $2.5 million advertising blitz accusing McCain of forsaking the environment.

McCain filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission yesterday arguing that the ads represent an illegal contribution to Bush's presidential campaign because those who paid for the ads aren't independent of Bush's campaign.

Speaking to an enthusiastic Silicon Valley crowd at Santa Clara University, McCain implored voters to "tell [Bush's] sleazy Texas buddies to stop these negative ads and take their money back to Texas where it belongs."

"Don't try to corrupt American politics with your money," he said of Bush's allies.

Bradley, who has yet to win a primary and who trails Gore in polls in every state that has a delegate contest today, also remained resolute. But he set his bar for success about as low as possible: two states out of the 16 in contention.

Each week, the former New Jersey senator has insisted that his comeback is on the way. He gambled on an extended campaign in Washington state, neglecting other states and hoping that a victory in Washington last Tuesday would give him momentum for tomorrow. When that failed, he declared Super Tuesday his "take-off day."

Yesterday, he said he simply needed to win two of the 16 states to stay in the race.

"I don't think there's any magic number, but I do think we have to win a couple of states," Bradley said on CBS' "Early Show."

Comes down to numbers

After all the verbal volleys and political positioning, it now comes down to numbers.

Today, Democrats will award 1,315 of the 2,170 delegates needed to win the party's nomination. Polls show Gore leading Bradley by double digits in the day's biggest prizes: California, New York and Ohio.

On the Republican side, voters from 13 states will select 588 delegates, out of the 1,034 needed to secure the Republican nomination. Bush is leading by substantial margins in California, Ohio, and Georgia. McCain leads in most of New England.

In New York, the one true battleground of today's Republican contest, analysts give Bush a lead of from 3 to 9 percentage points, meaning that the Empire State is very much in play, said James Zogby of the New York-based polling firm Zogby International.

A victory for McCain in New York could give him the psychological boost he needs to stay in the running, at least through March 14, when he faces an even more daunting task. That day's Southern primaries include the big states of Texas, Bush's home turf, and Florida, where Bush's brother Jeb is governor.

Scramble for delegates

But even a New York victory might be of little consequence in the scramble for delegates.

Whereas California apportions all its 162 delegates to the top choice of Republican voters, New York divides its 101 Republican delegates by congressional district. McCain is running better in the more populous areas around New York City -- areas that have more congressional districts than do upstate regions. That could give him the edge in the New York state delegate battle, Zogby said.

But he is unlikely to gain an overwhelming portion of the 101.

"There's no bump out of New York," Zogby predicted.

When all the votes are tallied, today's passel of primaries and caucuses -- the most ever held on one day -- could serve as a sweeping triumph for the front-runners.

In part, that is because states such as California that had traditionally voted late in the primary season moved up their contests to ensure that they would influence the nominating process this time.

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