Primary tip sheet

Here's how to handicap the runners in the coming month of Republican contests.

Published February 25, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Thursday was an unusually quiet day in the sprint for the Republican presidential nomination, as both candidates went back to home base to huddle with advisors and retool their messages for the upcoming March 7 sweepstakes.

The warm-up to Super Tuesday, when more than 60 percent of the delegates needed to secure the nomination will be on the line, will be this Tuesday, when voters in North Dakota, Virginia and Washington state head to the polls. Continuing with his strategy of selecting which primaries to compete in, John McCain has focused most of his efforts on Washington.

Though all three states have open primaries, McCain's advisors believe that Washington's left-coast libertarianism will be a good fit for the candidate who has miraculously emerged as the moderate, or at least as a populist who cuts across ideology. George W. Bush, who has become the candidate of the party's right, expects to do well in Virginia because of its large number of Christian conservative voters.

McCain spokesman Dan Schnur said he believes the senator can withstand a Bush win in Virginia, where Gov. Jim Gilmore is a big Bush booster, especially if it is countered by a same-day McCain victory in Washington. In the wake of the Michigan upset, McCain's campaign has tried to paint Bush as a "regional candidate" incapable of winning primaries above the Mason-Dixon line.

But Bush has refused to cede Washington, hoping to cut off some of McCain's momentum going into March 7. Bush rearranged his campaign schedule this week, and will now spend at least 36 hours in the state, where he will revitalize his compassionate-conservative message. That means trying to focus the race on his record as a reformer on education, and to remind voters of his appeal to nontraditional constituencies in Texas, namely the 40 percent of the Hispanic vote he received in 1998.

The central question for Bush is whether voters still believe that message after the governor's turn to the right in South Carolina. In effect, the two will be crisscrossing the political spectrum in the coming weeks. While McCain tries to shore up his Republican credentials, as he has with a new ad in which he calls himself a "proud Reagan Republican," it appears Bush will try to outrun the conservative tag he received in South Carolina and head back to where he began this campaign -- in the political center.

"We're going to be focusing on our record on education," said Bush's California spokeswoman Margita Thompson. "That's the No. 1 issue in California, if you believe polls, and Gov. Bush has got the best education record of any candidate in this race. Gov. Bush is coming up with great proposals. What are Sen. McCain's education proposals? "

Bush has also begun running Spanish-language ads here, which may not help him much in terms of actual votes (the overwhelming majority of Spanish speakers in California are registered Democrats), but the publicity the ads are getting may help Bush among centrist Republicans in the Golden State.

Bush will also begin making direct appeals to the high-tech community, whose members are key components of both the Virginia and California Republican constituency. Again, Thompson says, the key issue will be education. "This is a community which has not traditionally been involved in campaigns. But let me tell you, they are ginned up for this one," she said.

McCain's main pitch to Republicans now is that he is the candidate who can beat Al Gore. After a new poll showed McCain running 19 points higher than Bush in a head-to-head contest with the vice president, his campaign tried to drive the message home Thursday as McCain picked up another important endorsement in California. "At the beginning of this campaign, Gov. Bush wore a cloak of inevitability," said San Diego Mayor Susan Golding. "Now people are noticing that John McCain is the Republicans' best bet to win back the White House."

On March 7, McCain will focus primarily on three states -- Ohio, New York and California -- which between them hold 20 percent of the delegates needed for the Republican nomination. California has a quirky set of election rules that allow any voter to cast a ballot for any candidate, but only Republican ballots will be counted in determining the GOP delegate count.

While Ohio's primary is open, it presents an additional challenge for McCain. It will mark the first time since New Hampshire that the major Democratic candidates appear on the ballot alongside the Republicans, and may diminish the number of crossover voters that have boosted McCain thus far.

The final big day of primaries, March 14, has always been seen as a safety net for Bush. Texas and Florida vote that day (along with four smaller Southern states) and with Bushes governing both states, it was assumed that those two alone would give the Texan 204 of the 1,034 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination.

But if McCain should win most of the contests before then, and especially if he picks up New York and/or California, his momentum could put Florida up for grabs.

The latest polls in California, taken before McCain's victories on Tuesday, still show Bush with a sizable lead among the state's Republican voters. In New York, McCain got a boost Thursday from a poll showing that state's closed primary in a statistical dead heat.

McCain and Bush may well pass each other as one runs rightward to appeal to Republicans and the other runs leftward to shed some of the labels he was slapped with in South Carolina. While Thompson said she hopes the campaign stays focused on issues, she is not necessarily optimistic.

"Do I think things are going to get intense out here?" she asked rhetorically. "Ooooh, yeah."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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California George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz. Republican Party Virginia