Not so fast

Though the press declared Bush the "winner" in last week's Washington primary, the absentee ballots are still being counted, and it's awfully close.

Published March 6, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Long after the national press corps reported George W. Bush the winner in Tuesday's Washington primary and moved on, the laborious process of counting hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots is yielding a surprising result: Bush might not win the "beauty
contest" after all. In fact, as of late Saturday, Bush led Sen. John McCain by fewer than 7,000 votes, 351,881 to 344,933, with roughly 20 percent of the ballots still to be counted.

According to the latest estimates from the secretary of state's office, of the roughly 188,000 ballots still left to count, over half are in King County, which includes Seattle and is home to the bulk of Washington's voters.

Current tabulations indicate that McCain received roughly 32 percent of the vote in King County to 26 percent for Bush. If that pattern holds in the ballots yet to be counted, McCain could very easily pass Bush in the final overall vote. The reason for the slow count is that an unusually large percentage of the population here votes by absentee, according to Assistant Secretary of State Don Whiting.

As far as allocating the GOP delegates is concerned, the final result in the so-called "beauty contest" is largely academic. Only 12 of the 37 Republican delegates will be determined by the primary result, anyway, and those delegates will be distributed based on the party vote only. Among GOP voters in Washington, Bush still holds a comfortable 20-point lead, meaning that McCain's surge is based on crossover support from Democrats and independents, and will not win him delegates.

Still, the turnaround in the final vote total could yet prove significant, depending on when it is announced, since so much of the McCain campaign's success to date has come from generating a sense of momentum among voters. McCain's momentum took a huge hit Tuesday when it was reported nationwide that Bush had not only beaten him in Virginia and North Dakota, where McCain never expected to prevail, but also in Washington, where McCain had waged a very strong campaign and predicted possible victory. Over at the McCain campaign, advisor Mike Murphy said the Washington
numbers should renew concern that Bush can garner enough support for
a general election victory.

Much of the confusion over the premature announcement of the results comes from the way the primary totals were reported by state officials. CNN and other networks called the race early Tuesday night based on the "closed" (Republican voter) tally only. There is certainly good reason for that decision, since it is the closed primary tally that will determine the delegate allocation. But from a public relations standpoint, the news reports left the impression that McCain had lost the overall vote badly, which now clearly was not the case.

The media coverage created a P.R. disaster for the McCain campaign staff. They had been playing up McCain's chances in Washington, not because they expected him to win among the Republican voters, but because they thought he could claim the open portion. Thus, Cox News labeled Bush's win a "surprise," based on the GOP-only results, as did the other networks. The end product was a series of stories like the one from USA Today calling Bush's win "dramatic enough to dim memories" of his Michigan loss and giving him "a jolt of momentum."

Heading into this Tuesday's big list of primaries, McCain's camp has tried to emphasize recent poll numbers that show their man to be a stronger candidate against Democratic front-runner Al Gore than is Bush.

That strategy might be given a new boost, but for the slow pace at which the ballots are being tallied up in Washington. "We should know the [final] result by next week," Whiting said. "After King County is done, that should pretty much sum it up."

That's fine and dandy, but if McCain is ultimately declared the winner in Washington, the irony may well be that this news will come too late to have helped the challenger overcome the momentum Bush carried away with him -- erroneously, it now appears -- from primary night last week.

(Jake Tapper contributed to this article)

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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