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Will GOP faithful bolt Bush?

Orange County, Calif., offers window into promise and perils facing McCain.

By Paul Van Slambrouck and Daniel B. WoodStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / February 25, 2000



HUNTINGTON BEACH, CALIF.

On a day of monsoon rains, Roger Anderson is waiting to pick up his wife from playing mah-jongg at a senior center here and thinking about who he wants to be the next president.

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The retired veteran is old enough to have seen his share of internecine battles in the Republican Party between establishment and insurgent candidates - from the Taft-Eisenhower clash in 1952 through Ford and Reagan in '76. Now he sees another cliffhanger.

"By the time I first got to see Bush up close, I had already received two years of campaign material," he says. "He seemed like a machine politician who found out what voters wanted and then put those things in his platform while the party machine pushed him."

Mr. Anderson epitomizes the newest "swing" voter that Mr. McCain will have to woo if he is to win the GOP nomination - the undecided or wavering Republican.

As the fight for the GOP nomination moves toward its possible denouement on March 7, analysts agree that the Arizona senator has to capture more of the Republican Party faithful, not just Democrats and independents, if he is to garner enough delegates to win.

Perhaps nowhere is that more important than in California, the nation's largest electoral battleground, with its winner-take-all primary. And nowhere are the problems and promise facing McCain more stark than in Orange County, the nation's most identifiable redoubt of Republicanism.

For now, the numbers here and across the state still suggest a Bush victory. But there are signs of fluidity within the Republican rank and file.

"No one has a lock," says GOP strategist Steve Merksamer, who has not yet backed either candidate. Speaking of McCain, Mr. Merksamer says: "I think he has to pay attention to the Republican base. Some of them are feeling alienated."

Party in crisis

Certainly California presents the perfect stage for a dramatic playing out of the identity crisis now facing the Republican Party. For one thing, this is the state with the largest number of delegates at stake -162. It's also the place where Republicans were booted unceremoniously from the governor's suite in 1998, resulting in a bout of self-scrutiny that epitomizes the national GOP's quest for a new and winning persona.

And it's that swirl of an identity crisis that has alternately made Texas Gov. George W. Bush the welcomed savior here, McCain the annoying potential spoiler, and is now provoking a level of hand wringing California Republicans have not experienced for decades, say a range of political analysts.

In short, California Republicans, like those across the country, are now rethinking what seemed settled months ago: Who is the most electable candidate in November?

Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll breaks down the sentiments among Republicans, who alone get to decide the state's delegates, this way. The most conservative wing of the party, largely in control of its leadership, is solidly behind Bush. The moderate wing leans toward McCain. But the middle third of the GOP is still largely up for grabs. It's this group that McCain needs to carry the state.

At this stage, it's seen as feasible, but a long shot, analysts say. It is clear, though, that the McCain buzz has already begun. "Early on, all the calls we got were people calling to find out how to help Bush," says Roxana Foxx, Republican Party chair of San Diego County. "Now we're getting mostly calls for McCain. There's no doubt he's a viable candidate."