Bush has a Tuesday sweep

The front-runner wins the trifecta and regains the momentum from McCain -- again.

Published February 29, 2000 1:09PM (EST)

Texas Gov. George W. Bush swept key primaries in Virginia and Washington state Tuesday as well as Republican caucuses in North Dakota.

Perhaps the most significant win for Bush was Washington because it quickly extinguished a spin from the McCain campaign -- put out just hours before the polls closed -- that Bush was incapable of carrying a state outside of the South.

The results for Bush in the conservative bastion of Virginia and the left-coast state of Washington are particularly significant taken together because they indicate he may be able to hold on to the GOP's conservative base, while appealing to more moderate voters. That was the turf Bush staked out at the beginning of the campaign, before being pulled to the right in South Carolina.

"People know my heart, and they know my record as an inclusive person," Bush told CNN Tuesday.

The margin of Bush's victory in Washington was unknown late Tuesday. But Bush's victory over McCain earlier in Virginia was a convincing win. The Virginia victory was Bush's first step toward regaining the momentum after losing the Arizona and Michigan primaries to McCain last week.

Bush immediately announced that his 9-point win -- 53 percent to 44 percent -- proved that "Republicans and independents are rallying to our cause because we are speaking to their hopes."

McCain's spokesman Howard Opinsky tried to shrug off the Virginia loss early in the day by saying it is further proof that Bush is a "regional candidate."

"Until he proves otherwise by winning outside the South, it's pretty hard for him to say he's the most electable Republican in this race," Opinsky said. During stops in California Tuesday, McCain continued his effort to paint Bush as an extremist candidate by criticizing leaders of the religious right.

McCain said Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have "led the party astray." He claimed the Republican Party as "the party of Abraham Lincoln, not Pat Robertson. We are the party of Ronald Reagan, not Bob Jones," he said, referring to the controversial South Carolina college where Bush spoke. Meanwhile, CNN reported that its exit polls showed that of the 19 percent of Virginia voters describing themselves as members of "the religious right," 83 percent chose Bush over McCain.

Bush, meanwhile, is driving hard back toward the political center, a piece of real estate that he occupied at the beginning of this campaign and one his advisors refuse to admit he ever left.

"Governor Bush's methods of compassionate conservatism and being a reformer with results is continuing to resonate among Republican voters," said Bush's California spokeswoman Margita Thompson. "That is how he began this campaign and that is the message that will earn him the Republican nomination."

But McCain is trying to pin Bush to the party's right wing. His criticisms of Falwell and Robertson were timed to cushion the blow of the anticipated Virginia loss and to help create a wedge between himself and Bush by implying that the Texas governor can only win primaries where the religious right is active.

The McCain camp said Tuesday's results showed it was McCain who can bring together disparate factions within the Republican Party the way William McKinley did in 1896. "[Bush campaign manager] Karl Rove keeps talking about re-creating the William McKinley campaign model," McCain communications direction Dan Schnur said. "Turns out he's using the Jefferson Davis campaign model."

But this posturing by the McCain team seems awkward coming from where they stand -- in California, which is one of the nation's most racially and economically diverse states, and where Bush appears to have a comfortable lead among Republican voters. By the end of the night, after it was clear that McCain had lost Washington, Bush might have finally rid himself of criticisms that he was strictly a southern-fried candidate.

Bush predictably walked away with the North Dakota caucuses, 76 percent to 19 percent. The third candidate, Alan Keyes, was barely in single digits for most of the night, his candidacy seeming to fade a little more every day.

Heading into next week's contests, Bush has a strong lead among Republicans in California while McCain has a strong hold in New England. The two are locked in a fierce battle for New York. If McCain drops both California and New York it could likely spell the end of his campaign.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.