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Jewish World Review Feb. 29, 2000 /23 Adar I, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Surprises! The 2000 GOP race is full of it -- THAT LOUD NOISE YOU HEAR is the crashing of all the models that pundits and politicians had constructed for how this year's Republican presidential race would go.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush collected $70 million against the possibility of a tough challenge from conservative multimillionaire Steve Forbes, not the reformer, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

Bush started out miles ahead of all his rivals in the polls and political endorsements -which almost always converts into victory in the credential-conscious GOP.

Late last year, it became clear that McCain might win New Hampshire - narrowly, it was thought. But then, it was thought, dependable GOP fire walls would surely hold in South Carolina and Michigan - because South Carolina always helps frontrunners and because Gov. John Engler (R), a Bush-backer, rules Michigan.

That scenario crashed after McCain trounced Bush by 19 points in New Hampshire. Suddenly, it appeared, Bush's fire walls might be made of paper, especially because independents and Democrats could cross into both primaries. A McCain avalanche was anticipated.

But then that model of the future also crumbled as conservative Christians - widely believed to be a moribund movement - delivered South Carolina to Bush, creating an expectation that the original frontrunners-always-win scenario was right after all.

Wrong again. Tuesday night's Michigan result was unexpected by everybody. Engler couldn't deliver a victory for Bush. In fact, he may have caused Bush's defeat by triggering mischievous Democratic participation in the GOP primary.

Relying on Engler, Bush had confidently predicted victory in Michigan. Polls indicated a tight race. But McCain ended up winning by 7 percent.

Democrats voting for McCain made up 15 percent of the turnout - the same percentage, according to exit polls, that said Engler had "a great deal" of influencein determining their vote.

Bush claimed afterward that he had won the Republican primary, and indeed he did carry self-identified Republicans by 66 to 29 percent.

The governor lost because GOP-identifiers represented only 47 percent of the vote and Democrats and independents formed an unprecedented 53 percent. Democrats went 83 to 10 percent for McCain; independents, 67 to 27 percent.

Republican regulars expect that, as the race moves to Republican-only primaries and states where independents also may vote in a Democratic primary, Bush's advantage among GOP loyalists will defeat McCain.

It may happen. In fact, the logical model for the rest of the race leads to that conclusion. After all, the Gallup poll shows Bush leading McCain among GOP voters nationwide by 58 to 31 percent and the Pew poll shows him up 62 to 30 percent. Majorities usually rule, especially when big.

But McCain clearly signaled in his Tuesday night victory speech that he intends to win over GOP voters by reminding them that he's a "proud Republican conservative."

He wants, he said, to "tear up the tax code," end pork-barrel spending, rebuild the military, protect the unborn, cut taxes and use the budget surplus to pay down the national debt.

"Don't fear this campaign, my fellow Republicans," he said. "Join it." He said he is building "a new majority, a McCain majority" with lots of independents that could put the GOP in power "for years to come."

In trying to convince fellow Republicans to come around, McCain does have polls on his side showing he would be far better able than Bush to beat Vice President Al Gore in November.

The Pew poll shows McCain beating Gore 49 to 41 percent, while Bush is ahead by only 1 point. Gallup shows an even larger difference - McCain beating Gore by 59 to 35 percent, while Bush is up by just 5 percent over Gore.

McCain has enough money to get his message through in the Feb. 29 and March 7 primaries. And he hopes that Ronald Reagan's former White House chief of staff, Ken Duberstein, will be able to win an endorsement from former first lady Nancy Reagan.

McCain could pick up more momentum for Super Tuesday because Washington state and Virginia both have open primaries. McCain figures to win Washington and come close in Virginia.

To regain control of the process, Bush presumably will continue to make himself out to be a conservative, going easy on compassion, and represent McCain as a phony - a tax raiser, Washington insider, campaign finance friend of labor unions and a waverer on abortion.

If normal models hold, these tactics ought to work for Bush in closed-primary states such as New York and in states such as California, where the popularity contest is open to all, but delegates are awarded according to the GOP vote.

McCain has yet to pick up more than 30 percent of the Republican vote anyplace but in his home state of Arizona. At that rate, he can't win the Republican nomination. Or can he?

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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10/05/99: Gore moves: Desperate but necessary
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09/07/99:Airport rage increases, with good reason
09/02/99: U.S. future up for grabs in 2000
08/31/99: U.S. Capitol needs visitor's center -- soon
08/24/99: Will 2000 be the year of the foreign crisis?
08/19/99: Neither party has upper hand for '99
08/17/99: Ford gets freedom medal one month early
08/12/99: There's time to catch Bush, say Gore aides
08/10/99: Rudy, Hillary try much-needed makeovers
08/09/99: GOP must launch new probe of Chinagate
08/02/99: Pols blow fiscal smoke on budget surplus
08/02/99: One campaign reform should pass: disclosure
07/27/99: Gore leads Bush in policy proposals

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