By the time this week's Mini Tuesday primaries rolled around, John McCain looked as if he needed a day off.
The Arizona senator was on the attack - surging forward, as insurgents are wont to do - but he didn't seem to know when to stop. He was less than truthful about his campaign tactics, a blunder for a candidate whose raison d'etre is integrity.
And for several days running, he appeared intent on alienating every key constituency of the Republican Party: the money people, the Establishment, and finally, the religious right.
He seemed oblivious to the message GOP activists and analysts have been screaming for weeks - that you can't win the Republican nomination just with Democratic and independent votes. His losses this week to Texas Gov. George W. Bush, in Virginia, Washington, and North Dakota, only underscored his need to attract Republicans.
Worse for McCain, the challenges ahead look to be formidable - raising expectations that his campaign may be heading for a brick wall. In 13 contests he faces next Tuesday, including the plum states of California and New York, only Republican votes will count.
Then, even if polls show McCain would be a stronger GOP candidate than Governor Bush against Democrat Al Gore in the general election, it will be very difficult for the Arizona senator to collect enough delegates to win his party's nomination. And his big losses Tuesday have seriously dented one of his biggest assets: momentum.
"Bush has organization and establishment; he can lose momentum and still have a significant base of support," says Steve Merksamer, a Republican strategist in California. "With McCain, take away the momentum, and there's not a lot left."
Within the next two weeks, the four largest states will select delegates to the party's political conventions this summer. California and New York vote March 7, Texas and Florida March 14. McCain is trailing in all four states, which among them account for more than 45 percent of the 1,034 delegates a candidate needs to win the Republican nomination.
In Texas and Florida, Bush has the home-field advantage. He is the popular governor of Texas, and brother Jeb Bush is the governor of Florida, where he will go all out for his older brother. California and New York are less certain for the Texan, but the rules there work to his advantage. In New York, only registered Republicans may vote in the Republican primary, and Bush is currently leading.
In California, the state's "jungle primary" - in which any voter can vote for any candidate - leaves open the possibility that McCain could be the top vote-getter among all candidates, Republican or Democrat, and yet wind up with no delegates. According to the rules, only votes cast by registered Republicans will count toward the race for GOP delegates, and it's winner take all.
The latest poll released by the Los Angeles Times shows Bush beating McCain among California Republicans by 21 points, and overall by 6 points. But accurate polling in this roller-coaster primary season has been notoriously difficult to achieve, and analysts don't rule out a McCain victory in California's overall vote. If that happens, a battle royal could erupt.
"California can always surprise," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "If McCain were to win the beauty contest, but Bush gets all the delegates, it would raise an uproar. People would be justly offended."
If that were to happen, McCain himself has indicated he would abide by the rules that are in place. But Professor Baker says the fuss would be made on his behalf, by his supporters and in editorial opinion.
In the meantime, McCain faces the immediate task of rebuilding his credibility after his triple loss on Feb. 29. Voters are wondering why McCain last week denied responsibility for phone calls, to Michigan voters, that characterized Bush as anti-Catholic (for his visit to the evangelical Bob Jones University in South Carolina), then later admitted his campaign had made those calls.
McCain also generated headlines this week two days in a row by calling leaders of the Christian right "agents of intolerance" and claiming they had "evil influence" over the Republican Party. His strategy appeared to be that he was giving up on Virginia - home base of the religious right - and aiming his message at moderate Republicans, who are more dominant in crucial primary states to come.
Some analysts say they understand what he was trying to do, but felt he went a little over the top. And, they add, if McCain sees himself as the true heir to the mantle of Ronald Reagan, a title that Bush also claims, then McCain may consider the manner in which Mr. Reagan forged his governing coalition.
"Parties can be rebuilt in two ways, by addition or by subtraction," says Baker of Rutgers. "Reagan did it by addition, by putting together economic conservatives and social conservatives. McCain is doing it by subtraction, which is to kick out the religious right. History shows that addition is generally the successful way to do it."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society