Wounded McCain retreats to Ariz

Candidate to assess future of campaign

The Republicans

Super Tuesday

March 08, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Pummeled from coast to coast, Sen. John McCain was to take refuge at his retreat in the high Arizona desert today to assess the future of his insurgent drive for the Republican presidential nomination.

Addressing supporters in West Hollywood, Calif., McCain abandoned the definitive language of past election-night speeches for something more tentative, as he said he and party rival George W. Bush "may meet again" in future primaries.

"We won a few and lost a few today," McCain said. "Tomorrow, we will take a little time to reflect on the direction of our campaign."

Despite the battering administered by the Texas governor, McCain greeted supporters with smiles, two thumbs-up and some winks at the crowd, and he continued to position himself as the voice of reform in the GOP.

"I want to assure you all that our crusade continues tonight, tomorrow, the next day, the day after that and for as long as it takes to restore America's confidence and pride in the practice and institutions of our great democracy," the Arizona senator said.

McCain was flanked by his wife, Cindy, and their children in a room that erupted frequently in cheers. After calling Bush to congratulate him on his victories, McCain tried to strike a lighthearted mood, joking that his wife was the charmed candidate, because he won the two states where she campaigned on her own.

Earlier in the day, as exit polls showed McCain running behind Bush in key primary states, aides acknowledged that the campaign would be forced into some soul- searching about its continuation. To that end, they planned to hole up today at the senator's weekend home in Cottonwood, Ariz.

"We haven't made any decisions yet," said Mark Salter, McCain's senior adviser, who planned to spend today at the Hidden Valley cabin discussing whether to go forward or draft a concession speech.

"Whatever direction the campaign takes, we'll talk about it tomorrow," said Salter. "We'll tally up the numbers and see where he wants to go. A quarter of the country is firmly behind the guy and we'll have to assess that."

Unlike past election nights, McCain did not hopscotch from one interview to another. After speaking to supporters, he prepared to leave for the remote retreat, which has long served as a salve for him during tense times.

Aides tried to dampen suggestions that the senator would abandon the Republican Party in favor of a third-party candidacy.

"We've had no discussion, formal or informal, with John McCain about a third-party run," Salter said, adding that McCain has repeatedly vowed, "The Republican Party is my home."

In addressing supporters, McCain spoke more about the survival of his reform message than the survival of the campaign.

In addition to winning Maryland, Bush drubbed McCain in the key battleground states of New York, California and Ohio. But the Arizona senator made clear that, regardless of the outcome of the nomination contest, he would not abandon his message of reform, a message he has said Bush has failed to articulate.

"America needs and wants a thorough reform of the way we do our nation's business," McCain said. "That is the purpose of our campaign, and I have no intention of ever surrendering it."

Aides refused to give up yesterday, even as exits polls hinted strongly at a bad night for McCain. "We still think we've got a good shot at winning this Republican nomination," campaign manager Rick Davis said in the afternoon. "We're going to keep our eye on that ball."

In the morning, despite the prospect of a beating by Bush, the McCain campaign continued forward. McCain rose at 4 a.m. to appear on the Imus in the Morning radio show and, later, to do more radio interviews. By the afternoon he had retreated to a suite at a West Hollywood hotel with his family and close friends.

Last night, the campaign released a schedule for the rest of the week -- showing no signs of giving up. A new television spot is airing in Colorado, which holds its GOP primary Friday. McCain is to arrive there tomorrow before heading to Illinois to campaign for that state's March 21 primary.

But the plan could change. "Everything will be decided in Arizona," spokesman Todd Harris said.

McCain's Senate colleagues were anticipating his return to their ranks. Democrats were kindest. Senate Democratic Leader Thomas A. Daschle called McCain "an extraordinary candidate" and praised the moderate message that won him Democratic and Independent votes.

"We joke about the fact that he is saying some of the same things that many of us have said for a long time about campaign finance reform and about targeted tax cuts," Daschle said.

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