The view from ground zero in Super Tuesday delegate grab

March 07, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

SAN FRANCISCO -- For months now, today's California primary has been billed as the prime battleground of the Super Tuesday bunch of 16 delegate-selecting tests. From all signs however, it won't live up to that advance billing.

On the Democratic side, Al Gore is so sure he has the state in his pocket that he left soon after his lovefest final debate with Bill Bradley a week ago and didn't come back. As for Mr. Bradley, he also high-tailed it out in hope of salvaging something in New York and the New England states, all also voting today, and didn't return either.

An indication of Mr. Bradley's collapse here came in the latest Los Angeles Times poll, in which he not only trailed Mr. Gore 5-1; he even ran behind Republicans George Bush and John McCain among moderate Democrats, and barely ahead of GOP nag Alan Keyes. The best he can hope for is a small share of the 367 Democratic delegates at stake today, awarded mostly in proportion to a candidate's vote in each congressional district.

Hard campaigning

By contrast, Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain both returned after their final debate here and stuck around for the final weekend, campaigning hard. In their race, however, polls continue to show Mr. Bush comfortably ahead in the fight for the state's 162 national convention delegates, the largest prize offered by any state. The winner gets all.

Unless Mr. McCain springs a surprise bigger than the one he pulled off in Michigan, where he clobbered Mr. Bush on the strength of heavy support from independent voters and additional help from Democrats, the best he may hope for is a consolation prize as a result of how California will count its ballots.

Because California voters approved what is called a "blanket primary" -- all candidates regardless of party appearing on one ballot -- the two major parties contrived a system whereby Republican and Democratic ballots are coded so they can be counted separately for the purpose of awarding delegates.

A total vote also will be released, but only for bragging rights, which Mr. McCain can use, if he wins it on the Republican side. It would fortify his central argument that he has the best chance to beat Mr. Gore in November because he can attract the independents and Democrats a Republican candidate needs to be elected.

Republican veterans here suggest Mr. McCain appears to have lost much of the momentum he had coming out of his Michigan upset as a result of the campaign's "religious wars" -- his linking of Mr. Bush to right-wing evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell -- and a McCain phone operation implying Mr. Bush was anti-Catholic for not speaking out against such sentiments at Bob Jones University.

Sal Russo, a longtime GOP consultant in California, says this controversy has hurt Mr. McCain with social conservatives in the state, just as his criticism of Mr. Bush's proposal for a huge tax cut as too big has damaged him with economic conservatives here.

`Catholics for Bush'

A Bush rally in Oakland on Sunday brought out hand-held signs saying "Catholics for Bush," and some of the loudest cheers were generated by Mr. Bush's standard pitch that the federal surplus "is not the government's money; that surplus is the people's money" and should be returned to them in a healthy tax cut -- $483 billion over five years.

Mr. Bush also won applause for pledging to "challenge the status quo" in education by demanding that schools produce measurable results to continue getting government help. It was an argument he made effectively in the final debate with Mr. McCain and Mr. Keyes, especially because Mr. McCain offered no specific proposals in the area himself.

Mr. McCain has surprised the experts twice this year already, in New Hampshire and Michigan. But those two upsets will pale by comparison if he does it again in California, where Democratic and independent votes, unlike the case in those two earlier Republican primaries, won't be worth the paper they're printed on in the delegate chase.

cf03 Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux,1999).

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