Now it's a must-win for McCain

A loss in Michigan today would all but dash senator's bid to capture nomination.

Once again, Republicans head to the polls in a do-or-die contest for their party's presidential nomination.

But in a striking reversal of fortune, it's Arizona Sen. John McCain who must win the next crucial primary, today's vote in Michigan. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, stung by a landslide defeat three weeks ago in the New Hampshire primary, is back in control following a decisive 11-point victory in South Carolina's primary on Saturday.

Senator McCain, who built his appeal as a modestly funded insurgent out to shake up his party's establishment, faces a tougher task than Governor Bush did three days ago. Bush had 2-1/2 weeks to recover from New Hampshire and retool his campaign. McCain has had three days, barely enough time to reseize the momentum and convince Michigan Republicans he's the one who can beat the Democratic nominee in November.

McCain also lacks the formidable organizational advantage Bush enjoys. Not only does Bush have a larger bank account - $20 million to McCain's $8 million - but he also has the backing of the state's powerful party establishment, led by Gov. John Engler.

Beyond Michigan, and today's other primary in McCain's home state of Arizona, which he is expected to win, McCain faces a supermagnified version of those same disadvantages in the final showdown: the March 7 primaries and caucuses, when 16 states go to the polls to select delegates.

"Even if McCain wins Michigan, he's got only a very small chance at the nomination," says David Rohde, a political scientist at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "If he loses, he's got zero chance."

Each candidate's rhetoric since South Carolina highlights the new dynamic. Bush has hardly mentioned McCain, instead aiming his fire at Vice President Al Gore, the likely Democratic nominee - essentially trying to show McCain is irrelevant.

The once-confident, upbeat McCain has been scoffing at Bush's new mantra of reform. "If he's a reformer, then I'm an astronaut," says McCain, galled that in South Carolina, exit polls showed that more voters there viewed Bush as a reformer than McCain.

Since Day 1 of his campaign, McCain has pitched himself to voters as a reformer who would work to eliminate the influence of special-interest money from politics. Bush adopted the reformist tag - unfurling banners across South Carolina calling himself a "reformer with results" - only after his loss in New Hampshire.

In return, McCain used his big New Hampshire victory to try to seize one of Bush's most powerful arguments for voting for him: that he could win in November. As in New Hampshire, McCain reached out to all South Carolinians - Republicans, Democrats, and independents - to vote in the GOP primary, to try to demonstrate across-the-board appeal.

But McCain may have gotten a bit ahead of himself. Last Saturday's vote was, after all, a GOP primary, and he lost badly to Bush among the registered Republicans. And by pushing hard for non-Republicans, he inspired South Carolina Republicans to turn out in droves to defend their party. Twice as many South Carolinians turned out last Saturday as did in the GOP primary four years ago, 565,000 voters this year versus 275,000 in 1996.

Now McCain faces a growing feeling in Michigan that a vote for him might be a wasted one, says Michael Traugott, a communications professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "No one ever wants to vote for a loser."

Especially because many Republicans desperately want to win in November, "viability has a great deal to do with this," he says.

Furthermore, McCain is relying largely on volunteers. After he won New Hampshire, some 1,400 Michigan residents signed up to help his cause. Now the question is, will they be discouraged by his big loss in South Carolina - or will they be inspired to fight all the harder against a resurgent Bush?

"His people could say, 'He needs me more than ever,' while Bush people say, 'He's got it locked up, so I don't need to vote,' " says Professor Rohde.

Still, polls show that Bush supporters shouldn't get too complacent. Though the Texan has the momentum, and has eliminated the solid lead in Michigan that McCain had before South Carolina, surveys now show the race in a dead heat.

Bush supporters are also well aware that Michigan is less conservative than South Carolina, and may be more hospitable to McCain's shake-up-the-system message.

Regardless of how the Michigan primary turns out, McCain has promised to fight through the March 7 contests. And, analysts say, he can no longer allow Bush's attacks on him to go unanswered - regardless of McCain's promise to "take the high road."

"The dynamic of modern campaigning is such that you have to be willing to criticize your opponent, because who else is going to point out his weaknesses?" says William Mayer, an expert on presidential primaries at Northeastern University in Boston. "Certainly the Republican candidate will have to do a lot of that in the fall against the Democrat. To that extent, the South Carolina results may say something about who would run a better campaign in the fall."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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