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Jewish World Review March 1, 2000 /24 Adar I, 5760

Roger Simon

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When the geniuses screw up -- LOS ANGELES -- George walks heavily up the steps to the ancient second-floor gymnasium in a community outreach center. His mouth is a solemn slash, his jaw looks like it is set in concrete, and his eyes are puffy and tired.

The day before, John McCain has whupped him in Michigan and once again Bush had not seen it coming. He has gotten used to the endless stories about the geniuses on his campaign team; what he has not gotten used to is how his geniuses keep screwing up.

First, they miss the fact that the key, early primaries are all open ones where Democrats and independents can combine against him to vote for McCain. Next, they tell him he is going to win New Hampshire and he gets annihilated instead. Then they send him to Bob Jones University in South Carolina, which is like wrapping him in the Confederate flag and setting him on fire. Then John Engler, the governor of Michigan, who wants to be his vice president, goes out and tells everyone that Bush is going to win Michigan by six points or more. Vice president? Engler will be lucky if Bush doesn't have him deported.

And now what is Bush supposed to do? What's his message now? Compassionate conservatism got ashcanned after New Hampshire. Reformer with results didn't do anything for him in Michigan. So now what's his new motto, his new riff, his new way of prying the lips of the press corps from the mistletoe of John McCain? Alas, there is none. "You're stuck with me the way it is," Bush says.

Not that he is defeated. Not that he is depressed. Not that he is down or out. He likes to compare the presidential race to a marathon. "And we're only in about mile nine," he says.

But there is one big difference between presidential primaries and marathons. In marathons, nobody tries to kneecap you. In primaries, that happens every few weeks.

"What Michigan really means is that March 7 is going to count a lot for both candidacies," Bush says. On March 7, there will be a dozen Republican contests, and though the media have been calling it Super Tuesday, they might as well call it Titanic Tuesday because when the night is over, somebody may be going down with the ship.

March 7 should have been the day when Bush pounded the final nails into John McCain's coffin; the day when McCain would be forced to drop out, if he even managed to hang in that far.

But what has happened? Two months into the campaign calendar, McCain has beaten Bush in three contested primaries and Bush has beaten McCain in only one. McCain leads Bush in delegates, has almost as much money on hand as Bush and has forced Bush so far out of his game plan that even if Bush wins the nomination he may have scuttled so far to the right in order to win South Carolina that he may be unable to take the presidency.

But March 7, the Bush campaign believes, can go a long way toward fixing all that. All Bush has to do is beat McCain from one side of the country to the other and in a few places in between.

But most of all, Bush has to beat McCain in California, which has become Ground Zero for both campaigns.

"The Republican snowball of panic continues unabated," says Dan Schnur, McCain's communications director. "California will determine the Republican nominee for president. Our most important task is to show Republicans that John McCain is the best candidate to beat Al Gore. We are going to tell them: 'Don't listen to the party bosses; they are the ones who told you Bob Dole was the best candidate in 1996!"

For all his problems, Bush is still the favorite if only because he continues to attract the heavy support of Republicans, and it seems unimaginable to many that the Republican favorite could lose the Republican nomination. It is unimaginable to Bush, except in his nightmares, which sometimes occur when he is still awake and staring at TV sets on primary nights.

Though Bush is tired of depending on firewalls to stop John McCain -- all Bush's firewalls have gone up in smoke -- he does like to point out that the calendar is on his side: After Super Tuesday, there is Southern Tuesday on March 14, with primaries including Texas, where he is governor, and Florida, where his brother Jeb is governor.

Bush considers both states virtually sure things, but the McCain camp points out that Bush has depended on governors and state organizations before and has come up short. They are still betting on momentum. "If we win California and New York March 7," Schnur says bravely, "it doesn't matter how many states have Bushes as governors."

New York may be doable for McCain -- he leads the polls there -- but pulling off a win in California is going to be tough.

"In order for McCain to win, he has to get such an overwhelming Democratic (crossover) vote that Bradley would have to completely tank and Democrats would actually have to select McCain over Gore," one experienced California analyst says. "I don't think that's going to happen."

Others look at the McCain phenomenon, however, and see an irresistible force. Two-thirds of the GOP in California are bedrock conservatives, but the highest statewide office Republicans hold is secretary of state, and he just switched his support from Bush to McCain. California Republicans, in other words, are used to losing, hungry to have a winner again and may go for McCain as their best chance not only to beat Al Gore, but to hold onto the Senate and House.

''As I look more electable, we'll start drawing more Republicans,'' McCain promises.

In Los Angeles, Bush visits a grade-school classroom and perhaps reveals more than he intends to about the two o'clock in the morning of his soul.

"My dream was to play baseball," he tells the kids. "But you know what happened? I realized I couldn't hit the ball that moves sideways. So I had to adjust my dreams. I never really grew up wanting to be president, I'll tell you that. I guess the point is you've got to set realistic goals."

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate