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CAMPAIGN 2000

Tuesday Shapes Up as Judgment Day for Bush, McCain

Primaries: Texas governor leads in many key states, including delegate-rich race in California. Arizona senator may need win in New York to keep candidacy viable.

March 05, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN and MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITERS

After an extended duel that's captivated much of the nation, George W. Bush and John McCain face judgment day Tuesday, with coast-to-coast primaries that could abruptly decide their contest for the Republican presidential nomination.

As the two candidates careen into the single biggest day on the primary calendar--13 states will vote on the GOP side--it is Texas Gov. Bush who appears to have all the momentum. Late polls in the key states showed Bush leading everywhere outside the Northeast and gaining ground even there; the latest surveys in New York, where McCain had led recently, now show the two men step-for-step.

California and New York, the biggest prizes, loom as the hinges in Tuesday's balloting--which will select almost one-third of the delegates to the GOP convention.

With California allocating its 162 delegates on a winner-take-all basis, the victor is virtually guaranteed the lead in the race to accumulate the 1,034 delegates needed for nomination. Polls show Bush holding a significant edge in the battle for California's delegates as well as a solid lead in Ohio, another mega-state voting Tuesday. That leaves New York as the key to McCain's hopes.

If McCain can't hold on to New York--now the battleground for a fierce struggle on television, radio and telephone--even his own advisors acknowledge the senator from Arizona will have difficulty maintaining his viability as a candidate, and even more important, constructing a realistic scenario to reach a delegate majority. "We've got to win New York," John Weaver, McCain's senior political advisor, says flatly.

As a candidate, McCain has shown great resilience, recovering from a crushing loss in South Carolina last month to win Michigan and Arizona just three days later. But with Bush now leading not only in most states voting Tuesday but also the nine Mountain and Southern states impending on March 10 and March 14, the weight of the Texas governor's advantages is pressing down on the insurgent more heavily than ever.

"Bush's strength as a national candidate is emerging," says Karl Rove, the Texas governor's chief strategist. "The work that he's done over the past year to lay down the ability to campaign everywhere, and compete everywhere, and win everywhere is now becoming clear."

On the Democratic side, the 16 contests Tuesday appear poised to end the race in a rout. Vice President Al Gore leads former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey in the most recent surveys in every state voting this week and next--by imposing margins in almost all of them.

A Times Poll last week showed Gore leading Bradley in California by almost 5 to 1; even in New York, Bradley's backyard, Gore's lead has stretched to about 2 to 1.

Though Bradley aides still talk gamely of picking off delegates from individual congressional districts--like those in the San Francisco Bay Area--the candidate himself seemed to recognize the inevitable with his docile, valedictory performance at last week's debate in Los Angeles.

"It's interesting the other night that Bradley chose to buy five minutes on television right around the time of 'ER,' because he has flat-lined," says Democratic consultant Jim Margolis, who is neutral in the contest. "His campaign is over for all practical purposes."

The Republican race, by contrast, has defied predictions of imminent resolution and may do so again. Yet most analysts agree that, as the focus of the GOP race shifts from momentum and spin toward accumulating delegates, Bush's organizational advantages--not to mention his consistent 40-percentage-point leads in polls among core Republicans--will come more powerfully into play.

In just eight days, starting Tuesday, the GOP will select more than 1,000 delegates--over half the total in the nominating contest. Unless McCain can somehow win both California and New York, Bush could emerge from that scrum with at least 80% of the delegates he needs for the nomination, operatives in both campaigns agree.

At that point, McCain could still prolong the race by winning Illinois on March 21 and other Northern states that follow; but he would be living on the edge of elimination. "There would be tremendous pressure," acknowledges Weaver. "We almost would have to sweep the board of the states [outside the South] after March 14."

McCain approaches Tuesday's challenge on a down note, having suffered through one of his worst weeks in the campaign. First he was swept in last Tuesday's contests in Virginia, Washington and North Dakota. Then he spent most of last week embroiled in arguments over his denunciations of religious conservative leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell--a controversy that almost totally eclipsed his message of political and fiscal reform and may have alienated the independent voters attracted as much to his nonpolitical style as to his agenda.

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