Bradley drops out

McCain now faces 'sober decision'

Super Tuesday losses left little to hope for

March 09, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman and Ellen Gamerman | Jonathan Weisman and Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Humbled by his crushing defeat on Super Tuesday, former Sen. Bill Bradley will withdraw from the race for the Democratic nomination today and endorse his triumphant rival, Vice President Al Gore, aides said yesterday.

On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain huddled with his top advisers and campaign staff, reviewing options ranging from a hasty withdrawal to a possible third-party bid.

His campaign said last night that McCain would make a statement at noon today amid reports that the Arizona senator will announce his withdrawal from the race.

In the meantime, McCain staff members fanned speculation about an independent run for the White House, saying that all options were on the table.

"I can't conceive of John jumping into a Reform Party [bid]," said John Weaver, McCain's political director. "But I can see him being pushed."

The senator's campaign manager, Rick Davis, said, without elaborating: "We are still on the edge of a tidal wave of public opinion that has changed the party forever. We're still thinking big."

For Bradley, today's endorsement of Gore could hardly be an easy one after months of acrimony between the two men. For much of last year, Bradley's campaign soared on positive press, surging fund raising and the fumbling missteps of the vice president. Gore righted himself, in part, by attacking Bradley's health care plan, education ideas and agricultural policies.

Still, Bradley will embrace the vice president enthusiastically, a Bradley adviser said, and will promise to work for Gore's election.

For his part, Gore sounded a gracious note yesterday, expressing admiration for his vanquished foe and thanking Bradley for his congratulatory phone call Tuesday night.

Gore focuses on Bush

The vice president wasted no time turning to his new opponent, the presumptive Republican nominee, George W. Bush. In a spate of media appearances, Gore tried to link Bush to Pat Robertson and the National Rifle Association, painting the Texas governor as a captive of "the extreme right."

"Pat Robertson was the first face I saw on the TV screens across America last night, trumpeting Governor Bush's victory," Gore said.

And Gore tried to use McCain's faltering insurgency to keep the Republicans divided. Rather than simply repeat his contention that Bush's five-year, $483 billion proposed tax cut would siphon away money needed for Social Security, Gore noted that this same argument had been made by McCain, a conservative Republican.

"As John McCain said, that would clearly put Social Security at risk," Gore said.

Bush took his own shots at Gore, mocking the vice president's call for a ban on unregulated "soft money" at a time when President Clinton is raking in such donations. The governor mentioned Gore's highly questionable fund-raising visit to a Buddhist temple in 1996 as an example of "an attitude, a frame of reference" of the Clinton-Gore administration.

`Honor and dignity'

"I'm not casting aspersions on Vice President Gore," Bush told CNN. "What I am saying is America wants somebody who will bring honor and dignity back to the White House."

Clearly, though, Bush's primary task was to bring McCain back into the Republican fold and gain the backing of the senator's supporters, many of them reform-minded moderates.

"At the appropriate time, I will be talking to John if he wants to and reaching out to the people he energized," Bush told reporters in Austin. "The main healing will have to come as a result of the hard competition in the primaries."

`Let's beat Al Gore'

"John," he said, "let's team up, and let's win. Let's beat Al Gore."

McCain's wounds will not heal so quickly. McCain aides are discussing three options: simply drop out; fight on to force the Republican Party to adopt his campaign finance reform agenda; or jump to a third-party or independent bid.

The arithmetic all but precludes McCain from winning the nomination, with Bush having secured more than 600 delegates. The march to the 1,034 delegates needed to clinch the nomination now heads to Bush strongholds in the mountain West and the South. By March 14, an additional 432 delegates will be awarded, more than 200 of them from Texas, Bush's home state, and Florida, where his brother Jeb is governor.

Still, said Marshall Wittmann, a conservative analyst and informal McCain adviser, there is good reason for McCain to stay and fight until the Republican convention this summer. Because any candidate with the support of five state delegations can bring up resolutions on the floor, Wittmann noted, McCain could theoretically put his reform agenda -- especially campaign finance reform -- center stage and try to force Bush to embrace that agenda.

"Now, it's about whether the Republicans really want to win," Wittmann said, "and I think the key to winning is embracing that independent vote, that McCain independent vote."

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