Despite losses, edge still goes to Bush
So long as GOP establishment holds true, he is favored in the delegate derby on March 7.
After years of planning, millions of dollars worth of fund-raising, and an unprecedented round-up of hundreds of endorsements from major Republican figures, George W. Bush remains the front-runner and favorite to win the GOP presidential nomination.Skip to next paragraph
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As the nomination race careens towards its climax on March 7, when a nearly national primary will divvy up 60 percent of the delegates needed for nomination, the GOP establishment and its favorite son face the test of their political lives. The scion of the Republicans retains two strategic advantages over peppery John McCain: a demonstrated appeal to Republican voters, and the fast pace of the political calendar.
If Mr. McCain is able to erode Mr. Bush's standing among the GOP core in a few key states, the Texas governor might yet end up living in Austin longer than he had anticipated. And McCain, energized yet again by an up-off-the-mat victory, has those voters in his sights.
McCain still faces daunting odds. Bush beat McCain by almost 40 percentage points among self-declared GOP voters in Michigan, as he did in South Carolina. The difference between victory and defeat was Democrats and independents, who turned out in unprecedented numbers in the Wolverine state and went heavily for the Arizona senator.
Some 700 GOP convention delegates will be chosen over the next two weeks. Of these, 316 will be chosen in primaries open to all voters, as was Michigan's. But some open primary states, such as Virginia, are not necessarily fertile McCain territory.
Ninety-six delegates will be chosen via primaries open to Republicans and independents only. And 288 will be divvied out in closed votes. Only the registered GOP need walk up to the polls. Of these, California is the most important. California's March 7 vote will be counted in two ways. All voters can participate in a GOP beauty contest. But when it comes to handing out delegates, only GOP votes count.
And with California's delegate total the largest in the nation, few analysts can concoct a scenario whereby any candidate can win the nomination without sewing up this state's delegates.
As Republican consultant Ray McNally, who is not attached to either GOP candidate, puts it: "California's message is: 'hello, it's time to do the math.' "
So far, the delegate math doesn't work for McCain. Bush continues to enjoy a healthy double-digit advantage over McCain among GOP voters in California in recent polls.
And that presents the McCain campaign with a key question as it prepares for the March 7 vote. How hard should he redirect his campaign back toward winning the Republican establishment versus besting Bush in the California popular vote - the overall tally unrelated to delegates - in hopes of being able to claim he's the more electable candidate?
Gaining ground with the California Republican establishment would be no easy task and could create more confusion than appeal about his candidacy, say analysts. McCain has already alienated some elements of the California Republican Party with his push for campaign-finance reform and appeals to Democrats.