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CAMPAIGN 2000 | NEWS ANALYSIS

For McCain, Numbers Game Isn't Adding Up

March 02, 2000|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

The road to the White House just got a lot steeper for John McCain and his Straight Talk Express.

After being shut out in three contests Tuesday, the senator from Arizona risks effective elimination from the Republican race if he fails to capture at least one of the big prizes--New York, Ohio or California--in the next round of voting.

The main problem he faces is the changed nature of the Republican race and the more restrictive balloting that will make it harder for McCain's appeal to Democrats and independents to pay off in most states.

Until now, the contest has been a series of discrete and almost disconnected events--the Iowa caucuses, primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan--each fought on their own distinct terms.

Week by week, each cliffhanger became a drama worthy of an old-time serial. The winner was rewarded with a splash of publicity, a morale boost and a jolt of momentum that lingered until the next installment.

But now the contests start falling in huge clumps and the intangible benefits give way to the only thing that counts from now on: winning delegates.

And the rules for awarding those delegates, with core Republicans growing increasingly influential, strongly favor Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

"The deck has been stacked against [McCain] for some time and now it's even more so," said Whit Ayres, a veteran GOP strategist who remains unaligned in the party fight.

On Tuesday, California and 11 other states will vote, choosing nearly 60% of the delegates needed to win the Republican nomination. A week later, voters in another six states, including giants Texas and Florida, go to the polls. After that round, the nominating fight should be mathematically decided.

Given Bush's advantages in his home state of Texas and Florida, where his brother is governor, as well as the huge lead he now enjoys in the race for California delegates, it becomes difficult to see how the spread-thin McCain can prevail without another miracle comeback.

Still, it is a measure of this most uncertain campaign season that few brush off the possibility. "He's gone much farther that almost anybody figured he could," Ayres noted. "One dismisses him at their peril."

Ever irrepressible, McCain made the same point Wednesday, a day after being walloped by Bush in Virginia, North Dakota and Washington state. "The establishment is intent on breaking me, but we're going to win this thing," he insisted at a morning rally in Riverside.

In a day of campaigning that took his Straight Talk Express bus from the Inland Empire to Orange County's Little Saigon, McCain toned down his criticism of leaders of the Christian Right, whom he earlier attacked as "evil" and "agents of intolerance."

His comments drew an embarrassing rebuke from conservative activist Gary Bauer, who has endorsed McCain and initially stood by his criticisms of the Rev. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

"I must in the strongest possible terms repudiate Sen. McCain's unwarranted, ill-advised and divisive attacks on certain religious leaders," Bauer said in a statement. "Sen. McCain must not allow his personal differences with any individual to cloud his judgment."

McCain made clear Wednesday he would continue to condemn Robertson and Falwell, though he insisted the use of the word "evil" was a joke and apologized. He also promised a more issue-oriented approach.

"It's time we started talking about Social Security, the surplus, Medicare, foreign policy, how we're going to restore the military," McCain said. "I'm going to focus, frankly, my campaign rather than respond to continued assaults on my character. The people of this country deserve a campaign based on the issues. And that's what I'm going to try to give them."

Across the country, Bush called Tuesday's three-state sweep a portent of things to come.

"I intend to consolidate the party and consolidate the base and reach out to independents and Democrats," Bush said at a news conference in suburban Atlanta. "Step one is to earn the nomination. When I'm nominated, I will reach out to independents and Democrats who have not participated in our primaries."

For now, however, he kept his eye on McCain, picking up the theme of his scolding victory speech Tuesday night. He said McCain "should be ashamed" for condoning "Catholic voter alert" calls that publicized Bush's visit to controversial Bob Jones University.

And Bush said it was wrong of McCain to compare Falwell and Robertson to black activists Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan. It was "a reach," the governor said.

"Farrakhan preaches hate. He is a hateful person who has preached an anti-Semitic message which is ugly. All of us ought to reject the politics of Louis Farrakhan."

Behind the rhetoric lies a simple reality: the Republican race has become a numbers game, a race to reach the magic total of 1,034 committed delegates. And the problem for McCain is equally clear-cut: only votes cast in Republican primaries count toward delegates.

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