- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2000

Texas Gov. George W. Bush has pulled even in polls with rival John McCain heading into today's Michigan primary because the Arizona senator has gotten off message with his increasingly negative campaign, according to state Republican lawmakers and an independent pollster.

"Voters see McCain as out of character when he starts hammering on the negative side, as he's doing in Michigan," pollster John Zogby said. "Maybe that revealed something about him that maybe voters shouldn't see."

Said State Rep. Charley LaSata, a Republican, "I expect a remarkably big turnout, but contrary to the conventional view I hear expressed, a big turnout will help Bush. Bush has been able to mobilize the Republican base in this state."

Mr. McCain is "repeating the three mistakes" he made that cost him the South Carolina primary, Mr. LaSata said, and "that is giving added momentum to Bush."

First, he said, Mr. McCain erred by running against his own party and saying it was corrupted by "special interests." He erred again by claiming Mr. Bush "twists the truth like President Clinton" and finally by sounding mean-spirited in his concession speech to Mr. Bush after his 11-point loss in South Carolina.

A new Zogby poll, taken Sunday and yesterday, shows the Arizona senator and Texas governor statistically even 46 percent and 44 percent, respectively, with a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points. In a Detroit News poll taken just 10 days ago, Mr. McCain led Mr. Bush 43 percent to 34 percent.

Mr. Bush leads 60 percent to 25 percent among Republicans, according to the new Zogby poll and runs close behind Mr. McCain among independents, 44 percent to 39 percent.

But Mr. McCain is way ahead among Democrats, leading Mr. Bush 69 percent to 13 percent. And in a surprising finding, only 51 percent of voters who cast ballots at today's primary are likely to be Republicans, the pollster found in his survey of 907 likely voters.

"It is going to depend on [Michigan Gov. John] Engler's organization getting the vote out for Bush, and on the level of enthusiasm of McCain supporters," Mr. Zogby said.

Michigan Republicans said yesterday they believed Mr. Bush had capitalized on Mr. McCain's mistakes and induced Republicans to go to the polls today in what may be record numbers for a presidential primary.

Mr. McCain is relying on a big turnout today of Democrats and independents, his strongest constituencies. But the Bush campaign is relying on a big turnout of Republicans, luring them to the polls by warning that non-Republicans could decide the party's standard-bearer.

"My sense here in Michigan is that Bush has the [momentum] from South Carolina, although McCain will win some delegates because they are apportioned by districts in this state," said Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican.

The Republican primary is the only game in town today. Michigan Democrats are holding their nomination caucuses next month, leaving Democrats free to vote for Mr. McCain, either because they truly prefer him to their own party's candidates, Vice President Al Gore or former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, or because the AFL-CIO and others are urging them to make mischief against Mr. Engler and the GOP.

The Bush campaign has left it to Mr. Engler to use the "don't-let-outsiders-hijack-our-party" line that the Bush campaign used so effectively in South Carolina.

Rather than make that case in a television ad that might further encourage Democrats to come out for Mr. McCain, however, Mr. Engler made the "anti-hijacking" case in a mass mailing to Republicans over the weekend, Mr. LaSata said.

Mr. McCain's strategy for recovering from his defeat in South Carolina is to say he is the only real reformer and that Mr. Bush's claims to be one are phony.

"McCain has himself boxed in in a number of ways," Mr. Zogby said. "On one hand, he really should be able to hammer away at Bush as not a real reformer and as someone who visited Bob Jones University [in South Carolina] and didn't speak out' against the university's anti-Catholic bias and ban on interracial dating.

"On the other hand, McCain has promised to stay positive, and he seems to do best when it's his war-hero biography that is out front," Mr. Zogby said.

Even though Mr. McCain is pitching Democrats and independents in Michigan as he did in South Carolina, the big voter turnout there on Saturday that was supposed to help him defeat Mr. Bush actually propelled Mr. Bush to the win.

Mr. Bush turned out record numbers of Republican voters who responded to Mr. Bush's plea to stop non-Republicans from taking over the Republican presidential nomination process.

Mr. McCain also is reverting to his original strategy of bypassing contests where he thinks he stands little chance of wining. He skipped the Feb. 24 Iowa caucuses and is not planning to campaign in Virginia, but the biggest contest, California, on March 7, is open to independents and Democrats. Without a solid win in Michigan, Mr. McCain would be in trouble, Mr. Zogby said.

"The only issue here is, will it be a close election in Michigan, and even that hurts McCain," Mr. Zogby said.

Mr. Bush won big among Republicans in South Carolina with 69 percent of the vote, in part because he emphasized his conservative credentials in response to attacks by Mr. McCain.

On the eve of the Michigan vote, former Steve Forbes supporter Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, one of the most conservative Republicans in the House, yesterday told The Washington Times that "Bush is much more conservative on the issues that are important to me and my constituents."

Mr. Barr, a House manager in the impeachment of President Clinton, until now had not publicly indicated a preference between Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush.

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