Down and out

John McCain never even tried to win in Georgia, and it showed on Tuesday as George Bush blew him away big time.

Published March 8, 2000 4:00PM (EST)

After pouring enough political firepower into conservative South Carolina last month to take down Fort Sumter, if not win the Republican primary, John McCain opted to bypass neighboring Georgia altogether on Super Tuesday, assuming perhaps that his failure next door would cross state lines.

Well, it did.

On Tuesday, McCain failed to win the state of Georgia, big time. McCain supporters in his Atlanta headquarters acknowledged their candidate made a fatal mistake by setting foot in Georgia only for one two-hour book-signing event this primary season, leaving the state to George W. Bush, who visited Atlanta last week to drum up energy in a state that prides itself on being the beating heart of the New South.

On the basis of incomplete returns Tuesday night, Bush walloped McCain by roughly 67 percent to 28 percent, claiming all 54 of the state's delegates to this summer's GOP nominating convention in Philadelphia.

"I worked so hard to try and get McCain down here, but I guess his advisors got scared off by South Carolina," said Drew Evangelista, operations coordinator for the McCain campaign in Atlanta. "We did all we could do, but you can only do so much for a candidate without the candidate actually making an appearance."

Maybe the McCain camp didn't realize that there is no Bob Jones University
here, that significant parts of metro Atlanta mirror Northern Virginia or Charleston and Hilton Head, S.C., -- areas where McCain made real inroads. Here in Savannah, along the 100 miles of Georgia coastline not far from the parts of South Carolina that supported McCain, a large contingency of veterans, rough-talking sailors, Yankee retirees and Bill Bradley liberals reside. These folks don't seem to care much about McCain's Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell remarks and don't really consider themselves residents of the Bible Belt. They say they only wanted to see that McCain cared about this part of the state -- or about Georgia at all.

"I think he made a mistake by not coming," said Beth Harris, a longtime
Savannah resident and Republican who voted for McCain. "He was in Charleston and that coast so many times. He was a 30-minute drive away and he didn't come. If he had, he could have gotten more votes."

Neither Republican candidate ran any radio or television ads in Georgia, but Savannah residents receive South Carolina television stations, so
they saw plenty of McCain and Bush ads. McCain supporters say they liked what they saw, and that support for the senator's insurgent campaign was building here.

At the Mighty Eighth Air Force Heritage Museum, many of the veterans who streamed in Tuesday to look at war memorabilia and artifacts, or who volunteer there, said they supported McCain. The museum, a nonprofit organization that opened in 1996 and is strapped for money, tried to get McCain to hold a political rally here before the primary. Calls to the McCain campaign failed to elicit any interest, museum officials said.

"I'm still for McCain," said Phil Sellers, marketing director for the
museum. "His message goes to the heart of veterans, and his message could
have resonated here."

Others disagreed, saying they liked former President Bush and they are now supporting his son. "Bush was a good president and a good man," said Talbot Smith, a museum volunteer and World War II veteran. "His son can't be too bad. Count me in as a Bush guy."

At the Chatham County Courthouse Tuesday afternoon, voters drifted in to cast their ballots and receive peach stickers proclaiming "I'm a Georgia Voter." Turnout seemed low.

One African-American woman in her 80s, who said if her name wasn't used she would speak the "gospel," confessed she was a lifelong Democrat but that she had voted for Alan Keyes. "If he had come down here, he may have really given ol' Bush a run for his millions," she said. "I know a lot of my friends like Gore, but they want something different and it's time to have a black man in the White House."

Talking to Georgia voters the past few days, it seemed that if almost anyone besides Bush had ventured south of the Mason-Dixon line, he could have affected the vote to some degree. Resentment at being ignored was palpable across the board.

Those who cast crossover votes in the open primary here appeared to do so without rhyme or reason. Many Bradley voters pulled the lever for McCain; a few Gore supporters like the woman in her 80s went for Keyes in this city, which has a 60 percent black and 40 percent white population; but none of this activity affected the outcome.

For Savannah resident Louie Nordbye, who tried to create as much excitement as possible for McCain by putting up signs in his friends' yards, Tuesday was a huge disappointment. "I was a Republican for a minute and half," says Nordbye, referring to his vote for McCain; he says he will now cast his November vote for Gore.

Nordbye's comment seems to reflect a consensus among McCain supporters here, who for a brief time felt connected in some strange way to a rebel Republican hopeful but who now seem lost without a GOP candidate who can make them feel involved in politics. Call them "McCain Republicans."

As victorious Bush supporters partied throughout Georgia Tuesday night, these McCain backers drowned their sorrows in bars, spinning out "if only" scenarios about what might have happened if their candidate had listened to them and come by to court their votes.

Harris may represent an exception among the disillusioned, as she looked beyond McCain's defeat in the primary. "I guess I can live with Bush come November," says Harris.

Now maybe that's not exactly a ringing endorsement, but then again, Bush and Al Gore both have lots of time to make an impression on voters down here.

Want some free advice, boys? Try showing up.

By Suzi Parker

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas writer.

MORE FROM Suzi Parker

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz. Religion