After more than a year of political strategizing, fund-raising, and mythmaking, the biggest primary day of Campaign 2000 is upon us.
Voters in 16 states go to the polls tomorrow in a day that could be decisive for both major parties' presidential-nomination races. The largest single chunk of convention delegates needed for each party's nod is at stake.
For former Sen. Bill Bradley, Super Tuesday is likely to be the last hurrah for a campaign that began as a serious threat to derail the ambitions of a sitting vice president but that, by all appearances, will end with a whimper. Mr. Bradley has yet to win any Democratic contests, and polls show he trails Vice President Al Gore in every state that votes tomorrow.
The Republican race - which began amid expectations that Texas Gov. George W. Bush would cruise to the nomination but exploded into a war over the very identity of the GOP - likewise appears headed for a finale. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the surprise attention-grabber of the political season, is expected to win some or even all of the primary contests in the Northeast tomorrow, but to fall short of the mark in the other states, including the biggest, California.
A week later, on March 14, Governor Bush is favored in all of that day's primaries - including two of the nation's largest states, Texas and Florida, which happen to feature governors named Bush.
But even if the McCain phenomenon appears in eclipse, its effects will remain a permanent part of the campaign until the true finale in November.
McCain has yanked Bush to the right and exposed vulnerabilities that the Gore campaign is fully prepared to exploit. Bush supporters argue that the McCain challenge had the beneficial effect of putting their man - until this year, inexperienced in national politics - in fighting trim for the general election.
Still, Bush's crash course in how to beat back a tough political competitor has come at a steep cost - $60 million, to be exact. If he does win the nomination, Bush will not face the Democratic nominee with the overwhelming financial advantage he thought he would have.
In the meantime, McCain supporters are not prepared to concede defeat.
"This has been a campaign that does the unexpected," says a Republican strategist and McCain backer who sometimes speaks with the senator.
No one knew what would happen between the South Carolina primary on Feb. 19, when McCain lost decisively, and Michigan on Feb. 22, when McCain roared back to victory, this strategist notes. And so he preaches caution when looking ahead to Super Tuesday and beyond.
"What's important on Tuesday is that McCain does very well in the Northeast and consolidates a base there, and is competitive in the popular vote in California and close in Ohio," he says. "A lot of this is getting the momentum to fight another day."
Independent observers say the time for building "big mo" has come and gone, and that McCain must put solid numbers in the delegate column.
"He needs to win delegates in California, not just the beauty contest," says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "And that presupposes he wins the bulk of delegates in New York and New England."
But winning delegates in California appears well beyond McCain's reach at this point, given that the latest polls show him about 20 points down among Republican voters there. California features an open primary, in which voters can pull the lever for any candidate from any party on one unified ballot, but only the votes of registered Republicans will be counted in determining who gets California's delegates.
Furthermore, California has a winner-take-all system, so it's possible McCain could win the overall primary vote - the "beauty contest" - and wind up with no delegates.
McCain himself has pledged not to fight that outcome if it transpires, but it's unclear what McCain backers would do. California politics-watchers say it's unlikely the rules would be changed to apportion some delegates to McCain if he wins the beauty contest, but they add the state's Republican Party would still feel some repercussions if McCain does win the overall vote there.
"It's a difficult situation for the Republican Party if, indeed, he comes out ahead in the popular vote and George W. Bush wins all 162 of California's delegates," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif. "Anything that creates internecine warfare can't be healthy for the party, which is already in dire shape in California."
Elsewhere in tomorrow's vote, the race in New York remains close between Bush and McCain.
But, analysts say, McCain is going to need to show strength outside the Northeast to demonstrate any continuing national potential for the Republican nomination. After his rampage last week against leaders of the Christian right - an important segment of the Republican primary electorate - it seems doubtful that the Arizona senator can regain his footing. Democrats, who tend to fear McCain more than Bush in November, are getting ready to heave a sigh of relief.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society