- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2000

RICHMOND Texas Gov. George W. Bush, buoyed by independents and Christian conservatives, last night soundly defeated Arizona Sen. John McCain in Virginia's Republican presidential primary.

"Tonight we are one step closer to victory, we are one step closer to having a united party and we are one step closer to getting rid of Clinton-Gore in Washington, D.C.," Mr. Bush said last night at a rally in Cincinnati.

Mr. Bush also trounced Mr. McCain in the North Dakota caucus last night, and CNN called the primary in Washington state for Mr. Bush early this morning based on early returns.

A defiant Mr. McCain last night rejected the result in Virginia, where he had lashed out at Christian conservatives the day before.

"I don't think it has any impact at all. Most people in Super Tuesday states are not going to be affected by what happened in Virginia or Washington, to tell you the truth," he said.

But Mr. Bush said Mr. McCain's comments had backfired on him in Virginia.

"I've got some good news from the commonwealth of Virginia," he said. "Tonight, in an open primary, the voters of Virginia rejected the politics of pitting one religion against another."

Final returns had Mr. Bush winning with 53 percent of the vote to 44 percent for Mr. McCain and 3 percent for former ambassador Alan Keyes. Mr. Bush received 350,185 votes to 290,779 for Mr. McCain and 20,294 for Mr. Keyes.

The Texas governor captured all 56 delegates at stake in Virginia's winner-take-all primary. Mr. Bush also regained the momentum heading into next week's critical Super Tuesday balloting in which 613 Republican delegates are at stake in 13 states, including California and New York.

Religious conservatives flocked to Mr. Bush a day after Mr. McCain traveled to Virginia Beach, home of the Christian Coalition, and denounced the Revs. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance" akin to Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Rev. Al Sharpton, the controversial black activist.

Exit polls showed 81 percent of self-described members of the religious right, who constituted 19 percent of the electorate, voted for the Texas governor.

"We are expanding our base without destroying our foundations," Mr. Bush told the Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Mr. Bush also did better than he had in recent races among self-described independent voters, who constituted 29 percent of yesterday's voters. Mr. Bush picked up 32 percent of independents.

Mr. McCain, who campaigned in California yesterday, said Mr. Bush's wins in South Carolina and Virginia merely reflect the Texas governor's "Southern strategy" and the Arizona senator said he will rebound on Super Tuesday.

With the pink evening sun dipping beneath an American flag serving as his backdrop, Mr. McCain added, "We're still the underdog. Don't forget it. But we're going to win Tuesday."

Mr. Bush dismissed such suggestions by McCain's campaign that the victory reaffirms only that Mr. Bush can win Southern, conservative states. "I won Iowa. I won Delaware. We'll see what happens March 7," Mr. Bush told the AP.

Mr. Bush's North Dakota victory won him 14 of that state's 19 delegates. Mr. McCain was awarded four and Mr. Keyes took one.

Mr. Bush led early returns from Washington state, having won 59 percent of the vote to Mr. McCain's 38 percent and Mr. Keyes' 2 percent. Twenty-three percent of the votes had been counted by early this morning. All 12 delegates at stake last night went to Mr. Bush.

Democrat Bill Bradley failed badly in his bid to jump-start his campaign with a Washington victory over Vice President Al Gore. The former New Jersey senator was trailing by 45 percentage points in early returns from the Democratic non-binding "beauty contest."

The Bush victory in Virginia also was a triumph for Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, who devoted his organization to the Texas governor and handed Mr. Bush a badly needed win.

Michigan Gov. John Engler and Arizona Gov. Jane Dee Hull, two other Bush loyalists, failed to deliver their states for Mr. Bush last week.

Gilmore aides hope the Virginia win will improve his chances to become a Bush running mate or to gain a Cabinet post in a Bush administration.

"To win in Virginia and to win it going away, I think says something about the quality of the candidate that Governor George Bush is," Mr. Gilmore told MSNBC just after the polls closed.

"You would expect people who identify themselves with the conservative Christian community to vote overwhelmingly" for Mr. Bush after Mr. McCain "came in and was insulting to them," Mr. Gilmore said.

"It's not good politics in Virginia or anywhere in the United States of America to divide the party or divide the nation."

Independents and Democrats had carried Mr. McCain to victory in Michigan's open primary. But in Virginia's open primary, there was no organized movement of Democrats for Mr. McCain. Exit polls indicated that only 8 percent of voters in the primary were Democrats.

Voters in Virginia's open primary had to sign a pledge and agree not to take part in the Democratic nominating caucuses in mid-April.

Mr. McCain denied that his caustic comments in Virginia Beach meant he had written off the state.

But his aides acknowledged Mr. McCain hoped to gain ground in the Northeast and in California by denouncing Mr. Robertson and Mr. Falwell in Virginia Beach. McCain strategists tried to label Mr. Bush a "Southern regional candidate" even before Virginians went to the polls.

Mr. McCain's speech in Virginia Beach clearly backfired with some Virginia voters, such as Lee H. Maness, 62, a retired Richmond police officer.

"I'm a moral man," Mr. Maness, a Republican, said yesterday after voting at J.R. Tucker High School in Henrico County, a Richmond suburb. "I intended to vote for McCain until he came out with that slander.

"I don't agree with everything Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell say," Mr. Maness said. "Sometimes, I think they ought to keep their mouths shut. But I'm from the old generation. You just don't attack religion."

Earlier yesterday, in Cleveland, Mr. Bush accused Mr. McCain of "demonizing people, holding people up for scorn" and dividing the Republican Party.

"A leader is somebody who unites," Mr. Bush said. "A leader is somebody who leads."

Mr. McCain, campaigning in California, said he is trying to expand the Republican Party and forge a winning coalition.

"I suggest they check the last two presidential election results if they think there's been a winning coalition in the Republican Party," Mr. McCain said.

The Virginia results underlined Mr. McCain's dependence on Democratic votes. In Michigan, Democrats organized and voted for Mr. McCain, hoping to embarrass Mr. Engler. But in Virginia, Democratic leaders told their supporters to stay home, fearing Mr. McCain would be a tougher foe for Mr. Gore.

"We're telling people to stick to the Democratic [nominating] process," said Kevin Appel, a former Democratic chairman in Arlington County, a Democratic stronghold.

In Virginia Beach, Mr. McCain tried to portray himself as David taking on Mr. Gilmore's Goliath.

"In the state of New Hampshire, the great Gregg machine was against us and we beat them," Mr. McCain said, referring to Sen. Judd Gregg, a Bush supporter. "In Michigan last week, we had the Engler machine. We beat them."

"Now, we have the Gilmore-Warner machine. Let's beat them," he said.

Mr. McCain may have overreached in Virginia. Mr. Gilmore is a highly popular politician who has not polarized the electorate as Mr. Engler has in Michigan.

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