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CAMPAIGN 2000

New England's Appeal Not Equal to the Sum of Its Delegates

Strategy: Where Bush camp focuses on larger states, McCain sees a chance to sweep the region. Polls show senator's emphasis is paying off.

March 03, 2000|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — GOP front-runner George W. Bush last graced the soil of Massachusetts in September, and before that, in June. "It's hard to justify much more when there are so many larger states at stake," said Rob Gray, executive director of Bush's Republican primary campaign effort in Massachusetts.

By contrast, Sen. John McCain of Arizona has visited each of the five New England states that vote Tuesday at least once. In addition, he has invested $2 million on television advertising in Massachusetts, said his New England campaign director, Mike Dennehy.

Still, the biggest question about New England, where McCain appears to have a solid lead, is whether this proud region matters at all in this odd campaign year.

Look on the map and you see a clump of small states, none with a population to make the Census Bureau swoon. But as voters in Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut prepare to cast primary ballots next week, the cluster effect of 102 Republican delegates--one more than New York state--and 207 on the Democratic side makes New England a statistical trophy for any presidential candidate.

"I would look at New England as a very important region," said Bob Watson, a Republican state representative in Rhode Island who is running McCain's campaign there. McCain aides say that, besides California, they are concentrating their efforts for next week's voting on New England, New York and Ohio.

But the fact that New England is broken into five states makes its appeal questionable, said Gray, the top advisor to Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci. "If New England were one big state instead of five, the campaigns would pay a lot more attention," he added.

McCain Holds Large Lead Across Region

McCain's message seems to play well in New England and his strategy so far has paid off, giving him a 62% lead in Massachusetts over Bush's 27%, according to a Boston Herald poll this week. Elsewhere in New England, McCain held a comparable edge, polls showed.

Among Democrats, with an almost 2-to-1 lead in polls released Tuesday over former Sen. Bill Bradley, Vice President Al Gore planned a major rally Saturday in Boston. Bradley's Massachusetts chairman, James Shannon, said his candidate "has been here a lot: As he came through to New Hampshire, we grabbed him and shanghaied him."

All the candidates have benefited from what their aides call a New Hampshire spillover effect. With so much media attention concentrated on the Granite State's first-in-the-nation primary, candidates are guaranteed high exposure in a region dominated by one major newspaper, the Boston Globe, and connected by an areawide cable TV network.

The region that spans the Canadian border to just outside New York City and is home to 13.5 million people boasts a distinctive political sensibility.

Starting with John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, New England has been a presidential breeding ground. Consistently over the centuries, its senators and congressmen have had a presence in Washington disproportionate to their constituents' numbers, said former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president in 1988.

"The region keeps producing some really extraordinary people," said Dukakis, who teaches public policy at UCLA. Dukakis also observed that "Massachusetts in particular and New England in general produces more political operatives per square foot than any place in the country."

Politics is a kind of regional obsession in New England, right up there with the Red Sox, Dukakis continued. "Here," he lamented, "when I talk about candidates ringing doorbells, my students don't know what I'm talking about."

A Moderate Area That Loves Mavericks

Because New England also is the country's most consistently moderate region, the area offers a good test of how different messages will sell among voters, said Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University. Most of the region's legislatures are closely divided between Democrats and Republicans who tend, in turn, to sing remarkably similar philosophical tunes. Republicans such as former New Hampshire Sen. Warren B. Rudman, a key McCain supporter, and Maine Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins might well qualify as Democrats elsewhere in the country.

In many respects, West pointed out, "New England is as idiosyncratic politically as the South is."

New England also loves mavericks, so much so that in the 1976 presidential election, Massachusetts was the only state to vote for Democratic Sen. George S. McGovern. "There's a stubborn sense of independence here, a tendency to like insurgency," said Shannon, who hopes Bradley will benefit from this trait.

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