McCain rebounds big

The insurgent wins a major GOP battle -- without much help from Michigan Republicans.

Published February 23, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Arizona Sen. John McCain bounced back from a Saturday drubbing in South Carolina with a stunning victory in the pivotal Michigan primary against Texas Gov. George W. Bush, winning 50 percent to Bush's 44 percent, according to early results. McCain also carried his home state of Arizona by a comfortable double-digit margin.

The Michigan primary was make-or-break time for McCain, the media darling who emerged from New Hampshire as a viable insurgent candidate. Despite home state Gov. John Engler's promise that Michigan would be "an asbestos firewall" that would stop McCain cold, the underdog crashed through, largely by appealing to Democrats and independent voters. His result when he first heard the news, according to aides: "Phew!"

While the win in Michigan hardly vaults McCain into front-runner status, it does turn the Republican presidential contest into a horse race, as was evidenced by the tornado of spin that was swirling through the media Tuesday night.

Early exit polls showed that 33 percent of the people who voted in Michigan were independent and 18 percent were Democrats. That means that less than half of those voting in the GOP primary -- roughly 49 percent -- were Republicans. And those voters went for Bush over McCain nearly 3 to 1.

In his victory speech, McCain tried hard to craft a message to Republicans, the majority of whom still side with Bush. "Don't fear this campaign, my fellow Republicans. Join it, join it," McCain said. "This is where you belong, in the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan ... a new majority my friends. A McCain majority." And, throwing the most obvious bone to Republicans, he promised to "beat Al Gore like a drum."

Bush, meanwhile, spoke to reporters in Missouri before the results were official. He stressed that Republicans had voted for him in much higher numbers, criticized McCain for running what he called a negative campaign and defended himself, again, for speaking to Bob Jones University, a speech that might haunt him in the months ahead.

McCain's victory in Michigan on Tuesday is not the death blow to Bush that would have been inflicted had the Texas governor lost South Carolina. "A loss in South Carolina would have effectively ended the Bush campaign," said McCain spokesman Dan Schnur. "But I think [the Michigan primary] shows that [Bush] is a regional candidate, someone who can carry states in the deep South where there are large numbers of religious conservatives."

Schnur acknowledged that McCain will have to do better among Republican voters, but he is convinced that will change as McCain picks up momentum. "The biggest difference between John McCain and George Bush in the minds of Republican voters is not ideology, it's loyalty," said Schnur.

But Schnur hopes that the Michigan and Arizona results will cause voters in California and other upcoming primary states to take a second look. "With tonight's victories, the aura of inevitability has been pierced," Schnur said. "We poked a hole in New Hampshire, and another big hole tonight. The one problem with inevitability is that you're only inevitable until you're not."

Schnur said McCain is now primarily focused on California, a state that he has always believed would be the linchpin in a contested primary fight. But McCain will also be running hard in Virginia and especially in Washington -- a state without a Republican governor and with another open primary -- to hammer home McCain's post-South Carolina, combative message.

"If we had a full week in Michigan, we would have won easily," Schnur said. As it was, the candidates had only two full days to campaign here -- a Sunday and a holiday -- and had no time to alter their commercials before Tuesday's election. In Washington, where the primary will be held Tuesday, look for McCain to be more combative, with new ads reflecting his juiced-up stump speech and that tell voters Bush is not prepared to be president, that he has been a free-spending governor of Texas and that he is a hostage of the religious right.

"We've seen two George Bushes," Schnur said. "When he is ahead, he's an upbeat campaigner. When he falls behind, he gets nasty."

In fact, both sides traded charges of below-the-belt campaigning here in the closing days of this campaign. The Bush campaign said Catholic voters received calls labeling Bush as anti-Catholic, while the McCain campaign complained of a recorded message from Pat Robertson, played to voters on the telephone, that called McCain a threat to religious freedom and the unborn. Both candidates denied knowing anything about the calls.

Earlier this week, there was concern within the McCain camp that Bush's decisive victory in South Carolina would give him a bounce going into Michigan. With only two days to campaign in Michigan, and no time to alter their advertising spots or conduct tracking polls, both campaigns essentially held their breath and hoped for the best.

If the race stayed close, it was thought that the suburban counties around Detroit, Oakland and Macomb, would hold the key to tonight's election. It was in suburban Macomb that the term Reagan Democrat was coined and McCain was targeting many of those same voters in his campaign.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.