Naked City

Primary Concerns

John McCain
John McCain

Gov. George W. Bush's firewall is beginning to look like the Maginot Line. Instead of using the Michigan primary to stop any Republican insurgents, Bush watched helplessly on Tuesday as John McCain's forces did an end run around the political machine built by Michigan governor and Bush supporter John Engler. And McCain's resounding victories in Michigan and Arizona may portend even worse news for Bush in November.

"Bush is in big trouble," says Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University. "It's pretty clear that there've been very serious strategic mistakes starting with New Hampshire. Now, Bush is winning Republican voters but nobody else. And you have a protracted nomination fight. If the situation further unravels for Bush in California, then it really becomes a nightmare."

McCain's big win over Bush on Tuesday has led to a complete role reversal. Now, for the first time, someone other than Bush is leading the race to become the Republican presidential nominee. With his latest wins, McCain has 90 delegates backing him. Bush has 67. And instead of being woefully behind Bush in the money race, McCain is raising money at a faster clip than Bush -- and he can count on federal matching funds to narrow the funding gap. Bush chose not to accept federal matching funds in the primary. (He will be eligible, though, if he becomes the nominee, to accept federal money for the general election.)

In addition, McCain is getting broader support than Bush. Hard-core conservative Republicans continue to back Bush. But McCain is getting the support of Democrats and independent voters; and he can argue that he's the one who can garner those same voters in November when the GOP has to square off against Al Gore.

Bush's strong support among conservative Republicans may be his salvation in California, but it may damage him over the long term. In South Carolina, Bush was forced to swerve to the right in order to win the state primary. But his avid courtship of the Christian Coalition and his failure to denounce the racist and anti-Catholic attitudes held by the administrators at Bob Jones University will haunt him if he does become the GOP nominee.

Last week, the Chronicle predicted Bush would win South Carolina. As it turned out, his margin of victory was far larger than we -- or anyone else -- expected. But now Bush has lost Michigan, and polls show McCain has a good chance of winning the Washington state primary next week. But the real showdown comes on Super Tuesday, March 7, when 613 Republican delegates will be picked in 13 states. That day alone, 60% of the 1,034 delegates needed to become the nominee will be decided. For now, Bush's only hope is that his Super Tuesday firewall won't be as flimsy as the one he built in Michigan.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

George W. Bush, South Carolina primary, John McCain, Michigan primary, John Engler, Earl Black, Bob Jones University

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