McCain halts campaign, but not fight for reform

In `suspending' bid, he leaves race to Bush, keeps message alive

March 10, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SEDONA, Ariz. -- John McCain ended his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination yesterday, but vowed to keep battling for the reform agenda that turned his upstart candidacy into a national phenomenon.

"I will never walk away from a fight for what I know is right and just for our country," he said.

With red rock formations and snow-capped mountains gleaming behind him, the Arizona senator handed over the race for the Republican nomination to his rival, George W. Bush.

McCain did so, however, without endorsing the Texas governor. He wished Bush well but kept some distance between himself and the man with whom he had conducted an increasingly bitter battle over the past five weeks.

McCain's coolness toward his victorious foe contrasted with Bill Bradley's withdrawal from the Democratic race an hour earlier. The former New Jersey senator, though noting differences with Vice President Al Gore, promised to support his erstwhile opponent.

Two days after sustaining a bicoastal Super Tuesday thumping from Bush, McCain said he respected the decision of the majority of GOP voters. "I am no longer an active candidate for my party's nomination for president," he said.

McCain also dampened speculation that he would launch an independent run for the presidency, a path he has consistently said he would not take, and reaffirmed his loyalty to the Republican Party.

"I love my party. It is my home," he said.

"But," he added, "I am also dedicated to the necessary cause of reform. As I said throughout the campaign, what is good for my country is good for my party."

In terminating his bid, McCain said he was "suspending" his campaign. Aides said a suspension, rather than a withdrawal, means he intends to hold on to the delegates he has won in anticipation of the party's national convention in July.

Campaign manager Rick Davis said of McCain's comments, "What the speech does is put the onus on them [the Bush campaign] and the Republican Party." McCain believes, Davis said, that "it's very important to heed the message of reform."

McCain received "a very polite call" from Bush yesterday, Davis said. The aide added that Bush emissaries have not contacted McCain and the senator has not been asked for an endorsement.

McCain's remarks dwelled mainly on his drive to reform the way the government operates, a passion he said he would take back to the Senate. He appealed to the thousands of Americans who have supported him -- voters now eagerly courted by Bush and Gore -- to keep fighting against the influence of big money in politics.

"I ask from you one last promise," McCain said, squinting into the morning sun, his wife, Cindy, by his side. "Promise me that you will never give up, that you will continue your service in the worthy cause of revitalizing our democracy. Our crusade will never accomplish all its goals if your voices fall silent in our national debate."

Bush reacted warmly to the end of his rivalry with McCain. "I appreciate so very much [McCain's] willingness to enter the arena and talk about issues that were dear to his heart," the governor told reporters at a campaign stop in Colorado. "I also would agree with John McCain about the need to reform Washington, D.C. In order to reform Washington, D.C., it is important to get rid of Clinton-Gore."

By suspending his campaign instead of closing it down, McCain can continue to accept federal matching funds and raise money, in addition to retaining his delegates. Seemingly wary of sending mixed signals, spokesman Howard Opinsky said the senator's intentions were clear.

"The point is, today he got out of the race," he said. "I think everybody understands that this is the end of the campaign for him."

Future course unclear

McCain betrayed little emotion, but the day was clearly a sobering one. For a man known for accessibility, he took no questions and did not linger after reading his short statement to the media.

His appearance attracted out-of-state vacationers as well as the McCain diehards. His aides took in the moment quietly, snapping pictures and exchanging hugs as they awaited his arrival.

Campaign manager Davis, a poker-faced presence from the early days of the effort in the snows of New Hampshire, battled tears as he watched the senator approach the podium.

The course McCain takes from here is unclear. Somewhat cryptically, he said he and his wife would take a break to "determine how we can best continue to serve the country." Davis said the McCains were going "somewhere cell phones don't work."

The campaign seemed to come out of nowhere 14 months ago -- when McCain was at 2 percent in the polls -- but it slowly gathered steam as he poured his time and resources into New Hampshire. He shocked the political world with an 18-point victory there, gaining critical momentum. Days later, though, he found himself in a bloody battle with Bush in South Carolina. After railing against negative campaign tactics for much of that race, he lost decisively to the governor.

Reviving an insurgent message against what he termed the "iron triangle" of legislation, lobbyists and money, McCain rallied with a surprise victory in Michigan. But he succeeded in large part with the help of Democrats and independents.

Little Republican backing

While he argued that his broad-based appeal made him the better candidate to take on Gore in November, Republican voters did not buy the argument. They abandoned him in Virginia and Washington state, and their fellow Republicans helped Bush clobber him everywhere but in New England in the Super Tuesday primaries.

The next day, he returned to his weekend home in Cottonwood, near Sedona, in the red rock country of northern Arizona to huddle with aides about his next move. It became clear he could gain little by continuing to run with the delegate count so heavily in Bush's favor. Ever wary of playing court jester to Bush, he pulled out.

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