Whose Gop Victories Were The Flukes?

With Michigan, McCain seems to have broader political pull

When corporate chieftains, Republican governors, congressional GOP leaders, and the captains of the Religious Right awoke on Feb. 23, their political world lay in shambles. GOP front-runner George W. Bush, their favorite, had been rocked by maverick John McCain's 50%-43% victory in the Feb. 22 Michigan primary. It was a triumph fueled by the Arizona senator's anti-Establishment message and a huge turnout from independents and Democrats. "It's a hell of a race," says Stanley Goldstein, former chairman of drug-store retailer CVS Corp., who is backing McCain.

And a completely unexpected turn of events. Until now, the GOP's ruling powers were convinced that McCain's New Hampshire rout of Bush was a fluke. That's the way things looked after the Texas Governor bounced back on Feb. 19 with a big win in South Carolina. But with McCain's Rust Belt revival, power brokers are pondering a less pleasant possibility: Were Bush's wins in Iowa and South Carolina--states where the Religious Right dominates GOP voting--the real flukes? Bush's narrow appeal to hard-line conservatives and evangelical Christians, says one unhappy CEO contributor, "is a problem. I think he dug a deep hole for himself."

By upending Bush in Michigan and winning big on his home turf in Arizona, McCain reinvigorated his campaign. He still faces a tough fight against Bush in the Mar. 7 megaprimaries in New York, California, Ohio, and nine other states, but McCain is now seen as the most potent challenger to Vice-President Al Gore in the fall. A Feb. 22 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll shows McCain besting Gore 59% to 35%. Bush and the Veep run about even.

The key to McCain's success? A coalition of moderate Republicans, blue-collar Democrats, union members, and independents. And he's snatched back the reform mantle, which Bush temporarily grabbed in South Carolina. A Michigan poll showed voters believed by a 49%-41% margin that McCain was the genuine article. "They chose real reform from a real reformer," he crowed on Feb. 23.

NEW IMAGE? There's just one problem for the Reformer-in-Chief: Over the next few weeks, he'll be sounding less like master centrist Bill Clinton and more like a Barry Goldwater reincarnation. Says McCain campaign manager Rick Davis: "We're not going to retool his message so much as speak loudly about his conservative voting record."

Why tinker with success? From here on out, the schedule gets tougher because primaries are limited to Republicans. McCain won't be able to count on support from independents and Democrats, and to stand any chance of winning, he desperately needs to improve his standing with rank-and-file GOP voters in the Mar. 7 megaprimaries. New York's primary, for example, is restricted to Republicans. And in California, only GOP ballots will count when selecting delegates. If only registered Republican ballots counted in Michigan, Bush would have taken 68% of the vote.

Convincing the GOP faithful that McCain is a true Republican may be a tough sell. While he's a bedrock conservative on free trade, deregulation, and gun control, his heresies range from shunning big tax cuts to vowing to soften the 1992 anti-abortion plank in the GOP platform. That has cost him support from hard-right Christians and business leaders alike. "I flirted with supporting McCain," says Richard A. Lane, vice-president of Chicago's real-estate management company Ravenswood-Warner Corp. "But his messages are much too liberal for me."

Emphasizing his conservative roots has other perils. He could alienate independents and blue-collar Democrats. "You begin losing the people who brought you to the dance in the first place," says Steven E. Schier, a Carleton College political scientist.

FRESH CASH. McCain may have one advantage heading into March Madness-- raising money on the cheap. Bush has raised $70 million, but spent more than $50 million. Campaign laws limit individual contributions to $1,000, and many pro-Bush execs have maxed out. By contrast, McCain has raised $38 million, and has about $9 million on hand. He'll need it all in California, where it takes $1.5 million a week to stay on the air in major markets. But McCain's victories could give him plenty of new fund-raising targets, many of whom send money via the Internet.

For his part, Bush must return to the center without alienating hard-liners. Business backers say he hurt himself by lunging from compassionate conservative to a champion of the Religious Right. "I hope he lurches back to the center," says Henry T. Nicholas III, CEO of Broadcom Corp.

Bush can do that by stressing his reform record in Texas, especially on education. That would cheer supporter Robert N. Burt, CEO of Chicago conglomerate FMC Corp., who says the Texan "has an established track record as a leader on education--the biggest issue for America for the next 10 to 20 years." And Bush will pound away at McCain as a closet liberal while intensifying charges that Democrats are hijacking GOP primaries.

Bush still has lots of advantages: ready-made organizations in most states, a jumbo cash edge, and the resources of conservative groups who will plaster the airwaves with ads. And he remains the Establishment favorite, though even he now concedes that he may face a marathon race to the GOP convention in mid-August. Despite all he has going for him, the GOP's Crown Prince just can't seem to put that pesky maverick away.

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