'Crossover' math and GOP race

Many upcoming primaries are open to members of all parties. That favors McCain.

For anyone doing the political math, Michael Martin is the unknown variable.

The bespectacled computer salesman is a Democrat, but come Tuesday, he might just vote for Arizona Sen. John McCain in Michigan's Republican presidential primary.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush - with his strong Republican support - sees Democratic and independent voters like Mr. Martin as meddling outsiders. But for Senator McCain, these "crossover voters" have become his most crucial constituency - the key to his crushing victory in New Hampshire and vital to his future success.

Considering that 10 of the 17 states holding GOP primaries between now and March 7 allow crossover voters, such voters will play a major role in determining the Republican nominee. If they turn out in big numbers, they will help McCain stay competitive, and perhaps even win.

From now until "Titanic Tuesday" on March 7, "independents are the force to be reckoned with," says pollster Del Ali of Research 2000.

If Governor Bush can halt the march of independents toward McCain, he'll deal a serious blow to the Arizona upstart's prospects of snatching the nomination.

Observers say Bush's unveiling this week of a retooled campaign-finance plan in South Carolina - which holds its primary on Saturday - was aimed at doing just that. The proposal, combined with other efforts, appears to be having an effect. Bush has edged up slightly in recent Palmetto State polls.

But here in Michigan - the state, along with Arizona, where the national spotlight will shift immediately after South Carolina - he's behind, despite strong backing from popular Republican Gov. John Engler.

McCain had been trailing Bush here, but after winning New Hampshire, he jumped to a 9-point lead - 43 percent to 34 percent - according to a Detroit News poll this week.

For Martin, who's catching a quick fast-food dinner at McDonald's after work, McCain is the true reformer and maverick.

"Anyone who can rattle the established status quo is definitely interesting to me," he says. "Do I worry sometimes about having him in the Oval Office - that he's a loose cannon? Yeah, I do."

But in the end, it's probably worth it, says the 40-something with a salt-and-pepper beard and three children, who's also pursuing a technology-related PhD.

He's symbolic of the county he lives in - Oakland County, a veritable gold mine of independents in suburban Detroit. This fast-growing area is bursting with mostly white voters who are typically well-educated, wealthy, conservative on money matters, and more moderate on social issues.

Martin talks about achieving a balance on issues such as welfare. "There are times when we're all stuck in our life and we need help," he says. But along with compassion, there has to be accountability, he says.

Even though Bush speaks of "compassionate conservatism," Martin trusts McCain more.

"His time as a prisoner in Vietnam gives him the possibility for understanding people who are trapped in a certain situation," he explains. But as a Republican, he'll demand accountability for the help given, he adds.

Yet suburbanites like Martin aren't the only ones considering a crossover vote for McCain. There's a small-but-vocal group of Detroit activists who aim to vote for McCain to thumb their nose at the Bush-backing Governor Engler. They say the governor has made "patronizing" decisions about Detroit, including dissolving the city's school board.

It's groups like these that raise Republican ire, but most observers say they won't turn out enough people to alter the outcome.

"Sure, there will be a handful who vote in the Republican primary out of malice," says David Rohde, a political scientist at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "But the vast majority will participate because they like McCain or don't like Bush."

After the voting here and in Arizona - where McCain leads in polls - there are Feb. 29 primaries in North Dakota, Washington, and Virginia. North Dakota's contest is open; Washington's and Virginia's technically aren't, but rules there are loose enough that some crossovers are expected.

If McCain's crossover-wooing strategy works - and he grabs the nomination - he says he will have forged a new governing coalition that echoes the Reagan revolution.

But Bush counters such crossovers are likely to revert to the Democratic nominee in November, hurting the GOP.

Eating his last fries, Martin confirms that he'd be "hard-pressed" to decide in a McCain-Gore matchup.

At this stage, it's hard to tell how crossovers would vote in November. Today they like McCain's tough, reformist image. "But democracy is fickle," says Richard Norton Smith, head of the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich. "Whether those rough edges will still appeal to them in the fall - that's the question."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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