Will GOP faithful bolt Bush?

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

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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."

To be not only viable, but victorious, McCain will have to overcome some hostility within the party leadership, beef up his appeal to centrist Republicans, and persuade the rank and file he's the one who can win in November.

While McCain's voting record is conservative, he's earned his mantle as a reformer, in part, by backing campaign-finance reform. That doesn't go down well with the conservatives here.

Beyond that, Merksamer, who chaired the Bush/Quayle campaign in California in 1988, says McCain's stance on taxes is equally annoying to some Republicans. They think his promised tax cut is small - and were put off by his criticism of the Bush plan as unfairly tilted to the rich.

"That kind of class warfare rhetoric is straight from the Clinton-Gore playbook," says Merksamer. "That really bothered some Republicans."

No longer reflexively conservative

Though Orange County has long represented the heart of conservative Republicanism in the state, the party here has grown more moderate, making it potentially fertile ground for McCain.

Growing Asian and Hispanic populations have made voting patterns much harder to predict than in years past. In 1996, for example, voters here turned out 24-year congressional Republican veteran Robert Dornan for a Democratic woman with an Hispanic surname, Loretta Sanchez.

"There's a whole contingent of voters here glad to have a viable alternative to George [W.] Bush," says Monica Callahan, playing solitaire at a senior-citizens center. "A lot of folks think Mr. Bush has just a bit too much money, is a bit too slick..."

Southern California and Orange County was the seed bed for the nationwide tax revolt in the 1970s and the issue of taxation still resonates here. But its nuances have changed. Anderson, for instance, most wants government surpluses used to pay down the national debt, a McCain promise.

Still, Bush has plenty of support here, too. "I'm going with Bush because I feel he is more up front about what he stands for and has a record of success to go behind him," says Peggy, who declines to give her last name. "He strikes me as someone who is more fiscally responsible. McCain is really a Democrat in Republican clothing."

GOP on the issues

Statewide, social conservatives have strong influence in the party leadership while the Republican rank and file are more apt to be pro-abortion rights, pro-gun control, and pro-environment. These positions have created fault lines in the party that could benefit McCain, not so much because he's in step on those issues, but because he represents a protest vote.

Eileen Padberg, an Orange County GOP political consultant, is a good example. She plans to vote for McCain in the primary largely because the party establishment "continues to let a bunch of white guys pick a nominee that cares nothing about taking away a woman's rights," referring to the party's antiabortion stance.

Yet while McCain will get her vote in the primary, he won't in November because he, like Bush, favors overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court abortion ruling.

In the final analysis, David Brady, a political scientist at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, says McCain's greatest hope is convincing Republicans he's a more likely winner in November than Bush. If he does, the tides could shift his way, just as they did originally for Bush.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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