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CAMPAIGN 2000

Rivals Spar on Make-or-Break Day of Primaries

March 07, 2000|MARK Z. BARABAK and MATEA GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

From New York to California, the presidential hopefuls delivered their final pleas Monday, targeting the two biggest states with the largest say in setting the field for November.

On the eve of today's coast-to-coast sweepstakes, a last round of opinion surveys boded well for the front-runners, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. The two stumped on opposite ends of the country, increasingly confident they will face each other in the fall campaign.

Their respective rivals, Democrat Bill Bradley and Republican John McCain, held out the prospect of a surprise. McCain noted how often events in this squirrelly campaign season have defied the pollsters and pundits.

"There has not been a primary yet that has met expectations," the senator from Arizona said at a morning rally in Santa Clara, exaggerating somewhat. "It's just too volatile."

In California, the day's most coveted prize, polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Voters will cast ballots in a "blanket" primary, meaning they are free to choose whomever they like, regardless of party affiliation.

But only votes cast by party members--Democrats for Democrats, Republicans for Republicans--will count toward allocation of delegates, and winning delegates is what today's contests are all about.

The blizzard of balloting makes it the biggest day of the primary season; indeed, the biggest day in the history of presidential primaries, a result of so many states cramming so close to the front of the calendar to increase their say in the nominating process.

In effect, today amounts to a national primary--one that could end the two major party nominating fights just six weeks after the contests began in Iowa. On the Democratic side, 15 states and American Samoa will award 1,315 delegates. Republicans in 13 states will cast ballots with 613 delegates at stake. Both numbers represent more than half the delegates needed for nomination.

Along with megastates New York and California, voters in Ohio, Missouri, Georgia, Minnesota and five New England states will weigh in, among others. With Gore threatening a 15-state sweep, Democrats appear ready to validate the vice president's measured approach to issues like health care reform and gun control, rejecting the more sweeping "big ideas" philosophy of former Sen. Bradley of New Jersey.

An Epic GOP Fight

For Republicans, the Bush-McCain contest has amounted to an epic fight for the future of the party, something unseen for a generation. Former U.N. ambassador Alan Keyes is also seeking the GOP nomination.

In an unlikely reversal, given where their campaigns started, Bush has emerged as the preservationist, rallying the Christian right and other reliable Republican constituencies around an agenda of tax cuts and an assertively conservative stance on social issues.

McCain, a down-the-line conservative throughout his 17 years in Congress, has glossed over ideology and attacked leaders of the religious right in an effort to forge "a new Republican Party," with cross-over appeal to reform-minded Democrats and independents.

He has by far the most at stake. McCain needs a strong enough performance to sustain his campaign for at least another week, when six more states go to the polls.

On Monday, McCain traveled down the California coast, from Silicon Valley to a rain-soaked rally at UCLA to an appearance in San Diego's Old Town. He stepped up his attacks on Bush and the governor's ties to a Texas businessman behind a controversial TV ad that attacks McCain's environmental record.

The senator's campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, alleging the ad amounts to an illegal contribution from businessman Sam Wyly. The Bush campaign brushed aside the complaint, denying any advance knowledge of Wyly's efforts. "Scurrilous accusations," said Karen Hughes, a Bush spokeswoman.

His pique evident, McCain sought to turn the ad against Bush. Speaking to an audience of several hundred at Santa Clara University, McCain urged the crowd to reject negative campaigning.

"Tell [Bush's] sleazy Texas buddies to stop these negative ads and take their money back to Texas where it belongs," McCain said. "Don't try to corrupt American politics with your money, because American politics is far better than that, and it deserves better than what we're getting."

McCain also sharply assailed Bush for a second television ad running in New York, which criticizes McCain's record on breast cancer. An activist who appears in the ad expressed her regrets in an interview published Monday in Newsday.

Fighting to keep his insurgency alive, McCain backed off statements that he had to carry California to sustain his campaign. He insisted there were too many "permutations" to consider. The senator hopes a victory in the overall popular vote could offset a loss of all 162 California delegates, bolstering McCain's assertion that he would be more likely to carry the state in November.

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