- The Washington Times - Monday, February 28, 2000

RICHMOND Arizona Sen. John McCain yesterday sought to lower expectations for tomorrow's Republican primary in Virginia, even as he stepped up his effort to pull off an upset.

"Virginia is a little tougher than Washington," another state where Republicans vote tomorrow, Mr. McCain said on ABC's "This Week" program.

"It's hard to know. There's a lot of movement going on out there. Since the pollsters have been wrong in almost every one of these races so far, it's hard for me to predict.

"I think it's doable," Mr. McCain said of the Virginia contest.

Mr. McCain has a skeletal organization in Virginia, but increased his advertising budget in recent days and is running a steady stream of television ads in Northern Virginia.

The Arizona senator, who hosts a town-hall meeting this morning in Virginia Beach, added a campaign appearance yesterday in Alexandria, where he spoke to about 1,000 supporters at his national headquarters. At a noisy rally, he said he will beat what he called "the Gilmore-Warner machine" to win the Republican primary. Gov. James S. Gilmore III and Sen. John W. Warner are supporting Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Mr. McCain had to stop speaking at one point because of the noise of jets from nearby Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Mr. McCain made some enemies in Northern Virginia when he tried to increase flights into and out of the airport.

Mr. McCain trailed Mr. Bush by 11 points in the state in a Mason-Dixon Poll released last week and by eight points in a poll taken by American Research Group.

Virginia's entire Republican hierarchy led by Mr. Gilmore is backing Mr. Bush. State Republican operatives are manning phone banks and mailing fliers, trying to drive up turnout for Mr. Bush. Mr. Gilmore will fly around the state today, urging Virginians to support the Texas governor as an inclusive tax-cutter who cares about education reform.

"We feel very good about Virginia," Bush communications director Karen Hughes said yesterday on the CBS program "Face the Nation."

"The governor's message of being a reformer with results," and his interest in strengthening the military will resonate in Virginia, she predicted.

McCain strategist Mike Murphy said on the same program that the Arizona senator has the momentum in Virginia, but he may not have the time to catch Mr. Bush.

"No doubt with the Gilmore organization and the Christian right and Pat Robertson kind of waving the blowtorch around, [Mr. Bush] has got some advantages there, but we're catching up," Mr. Murphy said. "It's going to be a close one. We may catch him; we may not."

Mr. McCain got several boosts yesterday in Virginia and nationally.

The conservative Richmond Times Dispatch stopped short of endorsing the Arizona senator, but spoke glowingly of Mr. McCain in an editorial. The editorial said Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush both are conservatives, but Mr. McCain may be the Republicans' best bet to defeat Vice President Al Gore in November.

"McCain exudes character, spills over with it," the newspaper editorialized. "Bush may have it, but many are less sure." Mr. McCain "may be onto something," the newspaper added, "as Reagan was when he brought in many hard-hat Democrats."

Conservative activist Bill Bennett made similar points yesterday in interviews with CBS and CNN.

"John McCain is getting just an avalanche of support from independents and Democrats," Mr. Bennett said on "Face the Nation."

"I think a lot of those Democrats and independents are looking for an excuse not to vote for Al Gore and I think John McCain is that excuse."

But Mrs. Hughes, the Bush spokeswoman, countered that Mr. McCain is not the Republicans' answer.

"If John McCain went up against Al Gore, it wouldn't be a debate, it would look like a ticket," she said.

The winner of Virginia's primary will capture all 56 Republican delegates. Virginia's 3.7 million eligible voters do not register by party. Any registered voter may cast a ballot in the primary. But voters must sign a pledge and promise not to take part in the Democrats' nominating caucuses next month.

"Eleven points is pretty good, but it might even close further," Mr. Gilmore said on CNN, referring to last week's Mason-Dixon Poll. "I'll be happy as long as Governor Bush wins Virginia."

Mr. Gilmore remains wary of predicting a victory. Michigan Gov. John Engler was embarrassed after he boasted his state would be the "fire wall" for Mr. Bush.

"No one can deliver the people," Mr. Gilmore said. "I can't assure you what's going to happen in Virginia. It's an open primary. But we are reaching out across the spectrum to all different groups of people."

Mr. Bush campaigned across Virginia Friday, stopping at a rally in Newport News, at America Online in the Dulles corridor and headlining a fund-raising gala in Richmond for the Republican Party of Virginia.

The Bush camp mailed out thousands of fliers in Virginia Friday emphasizing the Texas governor's tax-cut proposals. Mr. Bush promises to "drastically" reduce taxes for single parents, cut the marriage penalty, abolish the death tax, eliminate the Social Security earnings test, expand educational savings accounts and permit taxpayers who do not itemize to deduct charitable contributions.

Mr. McCain says in a television ad that he will "target the largest tax cuts to those who need them most, America's working families."

Former ambassador Alan Keyes has made campaign appearances in Woodbridge, Charlottesville and Richmond. In recorded phone calls to homes, Mr. Keyes says the nation is facing its worst moral crisis. He is urging Virginians to "vote your conscience" tomorrow.

Mr. Bush appears to have all the advantages in Virginia. The state's Republican operatives are criticizing Mr. McCain across the state in Northern Virginia for seeking to add flights at National Airport, which some residents already consider too noisy; in Southside for his anti-tobacco legislation; and in Norfolk for his opposition to the Seawolf submarine.

The National Smokers Alliance is running newspaper and television ads in Richmond charging that in 1998 Mr. McCain sponsored anti-tobacco legislation that "would have imposed the largest consumer tax increase in U.S. history."

Apart from his national organization, based in Alexandria, Mr. McCain is relying on a loosely knit coalition of veterans, many of whom have no political experience.

"Before New Hampshire, it was a phone and me," says Paul Galanti of Richmond, a former Vietnam prisoner of war who is Mr. McCain's state campaign chairman.

Mr. Gilmore said the Arizona senator is thriving from media attention.

"We need to reach for every vote we can for Governor Bush," Mr. Gilmore said Friday during the Texas governor's visit to America Online. "Frankly, the future of the United States depends on their doing so."

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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