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CAMPAIGN 2000

Once Again, Voters React to Drama of a Race, Flock to Polls

Electorate: The latest round of early primaries keeps the drama alive in the Bush-McCain contest. Apathy is suppressed and the turnouts are big.

March 01, 2000|RICHARD T. COOPER and CHRISTINE FREY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — As they have again and again this year, voters who were supposedly alienated and apathetic turned out in impressive numbers Tuesday to cast ballots in presidential primaries in Virginia and Washington. And the message seemed unmistakable: Give us a horse race--in which every vote counts--and we'll show up in droves.

Add a front-loaded primary calendar in which many states crunched their primaries into the first three months of the year and voting in normally neglected primaries has become the thing to do.

"All of a sudden, it's like a sports league--each primary looks like a playoff game," said Jonathan Nagler, a UC Riverside political scientist. "Voters like to vote for candidates they like, and voters like to turn out when the outcome is likely to be close."

In Virginia some polling places had lines going out into the sidewalk, and officials in Washington predicted turnout there would surpass their expectations and possibly reach 40%.

At a middle school in West Seattle, Cindy Thompson, a part-time graphics designer and mother of two, spoke for many.

"This is the first primary I have ever voted in," she said. "I guess I think of myself as an independent, though I have always pretty much voted Democratic. This time, though, I'm supporting John McCain."

And, she said of her support for the Arizona Republican, "I intend to vote the same way in the general election."

Support for Father Translates to Son

For 63-year-old retiree Bob Davis, on the other hand, voting for Texas Gov. George W. Bush has been cut and dried from the beginning. "I'm a Republican, and I support George Bush. I thought his father was a great president, and I think he will be too."

Taken together, Thompson and Davis explain a big part of what is driving the high voter turnout nationwide.

"Bush and McCain are drawing from different bases here and that's why turnout is up," said Anthony J. Eksterowics, a political scientist at James Madison University in Harrisburg, Va.

Faced with a serious challenge from McCain, Bush supporters are making sure the core GOP vote gets to the polls. McCain is adding to the total by attracting rebellious Republicans, independents and some crossover Democrats.

Much the same is true of the race between Vice President Al Gore and his challenger, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, though it is primarily the Republican race that has been swelling the turnout thus far.

As leaders of the Republican establishment anguish over independents and Democrats upsetting their apple cart, they are caught in a trap they set themselves. Historically, primaries have tended to be closed affairs, open only to voters willing to register allegiance to a particular party.

Beginning in the Reagan era of the early 1980s, however, Republican strategists began moving toward so-called open primaries. Their reasoning: Ronald Reagan showed unusually broad appeal among Southern voters, many of whom had historically been Democrats. The same was true among blue-collar and middle-class Democratic voters in the north--the group that came to be called "Reagan Democrats."

Opening the GOP primaries to such voters, the reasoning went, was a good way to woo them into the Republican camp permanently.

What changed this year is the emergence of a serious challenger to the party's anointed candidate.

Curtis Gans, a longtime student of election turnout and head of the Washington-based Committee for the Participation of the American Voter, thinks a horse race by itself does not swell turnout.

With McCain, whom Gans credits with eliciting most of this year's surge, the challenger's appeal is based on content:

Some voters are attracted to his image of straight talk and authenticity at a time when politics seems dominated by spin and manipulation. Also, "some of it comes out of alienation, people looking for . . . a man on a white horse, not on any particular issue but to clean up," he said.

Finally, there are voters--moderates but also conservatives--who are tired of having social issues such as abortion and school prayer dominate the Republican Party's agenda and want to bring politics back to traditional GOP issues, such as curbing taxes and big government.

The surge in voting started in New Hampshire, where 396,385 people cast ballots--94,000 more than four years ago. Turnout in the South Carolina and Michigan primaries was double that of the last presidential contest.

In historic Alexandria, half a block from an 18th century tavern frequented by George Washington, Mari Stull held her toddler daughter in her arms as she explained that, while a staunch Republican, she turned away from Bush because of his association with the Christian right as symbolized by his visit to Bob Jones University.

"As a Catholic, that was offensive to me," she said. Bush later said he himself was not anti-Catholic and should have spoken out against the school's restrictive racial policies.

'Not Fond of' Falwell, Robertson

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