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.
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.
Though McCain immediately began appealing to party regulars after his victory in Michigan, the early guessing here is that he will not abandon the strategy that brought him this far. It's a game plan with considerable promise in California, given the growth of unaffiliated voters. And with proven success among independents and Democrats, the McCain camp hopes to erode Bush's GOP advantage by creating the aura of victory in November. As McCain's California chairman Ken Kachigian puts it: "We're going to show what is one of our strongest appeals, which is that he's a winner."
McCain's ability to keep coming at Bush could yet doom the last piece of the establishment's strategy. Take New York, another key March 7 state where McCain's Michigan triumph has put GOP leaders in a precarious position.
Gov. George Pataki threw his weight behind Bush early. The party even tried to muscle McCain off the ballot in more than half the state - but lost in court.
Before New Hampshire, McCain trailed Bush 61 percent to 16 percent. Now the gap is essentially closed. "This is good turf for [McCain]," says pollster John Zogby.
New York is made up of more moderate Republicans, who tend to be pro-environment. A plurality favor gay rights. About half are Roman Catholic and could be offended by Bush's foray to Bob Jones University, with its exclusionary doctrines and dating policies.
And, says Mr. Zogby, there are a lot of loyal Republicans who are annoyed with the party for its "ham-handed efforts" to keep McCain off the ballot. Only Republicans can vote on the New York GOP primary. But many New York voters who are registered as Republicans identify themselves as independents. "[The primary] will show that the Republican Party in New York is not immune from this national phenomenon of independence...," says Jay Severin, a GOP consultant.
Ohio will be another key test of whether McCain can break the GOP establishment plan. Until now, Ohio - with 69 GOP delegates - has been almost uniformly Bush country. Only one prominent member of the Republican establishment, which controls the governorship and both legislative houses, supports McCain: US Sen. Mike DeWine.
Polls put McCain 30 to 40 points behind Bush. But Michigan could change that. As McCain strategist Carl Steiner puts it: "Every poll is now obsolete."
Ohio analysts say McCain's got a chance. Underneath the solid support for Bush, there's an undercurrent of concern that he's "not as tough as he should be and not as smart as he should be," says Peter Schramm, a political scientist at Ashland University.
Those worries could spark defections among the usually solid Republican ranks. And given the embarrassing loss suffered by Bush's chief lieutenant in Michigan, Gov. John Engler, Ohio's Gov. Bob Taft and other state chief executives may be reluctant to go all out for Bush.
Alexandra Marks in New York, Abraham McLaughlin in Chicago, and Paul Van Slambrouck in San Francisco contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society