John McCain is ahead of Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the New Hampshire Republican primary, but judging by Mr. Bush’s hefty leads in polls elsewhere, it may be the Arizona senator’s best showing of the 2000 campaign.
For Mr. McCain, who bypassed the Iowa caucuses to focus on New Hampshire, next Tuesday’s first primary is a do-or-die scenario.
The Arizona senator must beat Mr. Bush decisively in the state and thereby change the dynamics of the race, because after that, there do not seem to be many primary contests ahead, except in his home state, where he appears to have much of a chance of winning.
“If McCain wins by 4 to 6 points, that won’t be good enough, because Bush has the resources and the organization to go all the way,” said independent pollster John Zogby.
“McCain has to hope for either a substantial victory or a clustering of the three top candidates, with [publisher] Steve Forbes coming in second and Bush coming third,” Mr. Zogby said.
In an interview on CNN on Monday, Mr. Forbes repeated an adviser’s prediction that such a scenario would come to pass, with Mr. Bush finishing third.
“I trust the wisdom of Bill Dal Col, and I think that the Bush people who laughed when he made that prediction a day or two ago, their smiles are off their faces now. I think we are going to do very well in New Hampshire, and I think he’s probably right that George Bush will finish third,” he said.
For Mr. Bush, the Republican front-runner and the winner of Monday’s Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire is only one contest in a long stretch of 50 state primaries and caucuses where, in most cases, he leads all his rivals by substantial margins.
Mr. Bush’s advisers obviously want to win New Hampshire next week, but if they don’t, they say a loss would not be critical.
“If we don’t win in New Hampshire, so be it. We’ll just go on to the other primaries where we have substantial leads and McCain is falling off the charts,” said a senior Bush campaign official.
Mr. Bush’s vast financial resources and a national campaign organization are daunting enough for any his challengers. But even if Mr. McCain should win in New Hampshire, he faces a gantlet of other primaries in February where polls show Mr. Bush is well ahead of his nearest rival in all but one.
They include Delaware on Feb. 8, South Carolina on Feb. 19, Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 22, and Virginia on Feb. 29. Mr. Bush continues to hold substantial leads in all except Arizona, where polls show the senator holding a narrow lead over Mr. Bush.
After that come more primaries March 7 that include big, delegate-rich states like California, New York, Ohio and Georgia, where independent polls also show Mr. McCain well behind Mr. Bush.
“One would have to say it will be difficult for McCain to move beyond New Hampshire,” Mr. Zogby said.
Even the McCain campaign says it faces a daunting task ahead if it is able to defeat Mr. Bush in New Hampshire.
“I concede that Bush looks strong in all of those primaries. The fact is that John McCain is not very well known in many states,” said the McCain campaign’s chief spokesman, Howard Opinsky.
“But I would remind you that no one who has lost the Republican primary in New Hampshire has gone on to become president,” Mr. Opinsky said.
“And I would point out that Bush had a huge lead in New Hampshire until a few weeks ago and a huge lead everywhere. But we’ve been able to cut his lead in half in South Carolina and in Michigan two states where … voters have had a chance to learn about McCain,” he said.
Mr. McCain’s numbers have improved mostly in relative terms. The latest Palmetto Poll in South Carolina, where Mr. McCain plans to challenge Mr. Bush next, shows the senator with only 29 percent support, but that is up from 7 percent. Mr. Bush is at 51 percent.
Mr. McCain’s strategy relies on beating Mr. Bush in four key states in four regions of the country, his adviser said yesterday.
“If we can win in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Arizona and Michigan, then we will have won in four different regions of the country and their strategy of inevitability will be gone,” he said.
“The Bush campaign will effectively be dead in the water. And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not be able to put it back together again,” he said.
With Mr. Bush’s strong lead in the polls in virtually all of the primary states, few see how Mr. McCain has any hope of overtaking the Texas governor.
“The odds are that George W. Bush will be the nominee, and possibly a very early nominee, but it’s not over yet,” Mr. Zogby said. His latest poll in New Hampshire shows Mr. McCain ahead of Mr. Bush by 6 points as of yesterday.
However, there is one scenario that he sees possibly playing out when New Hampshire votes.
“If Forbes is able to find his wings and go into New Hampshire with a strong anti-tax message, that, plus his Union Leader endorsement, it could cause a boomlet for Forbes, which would come almost exclusively off of Bush’s support,” he said.
The Union Leader of Manchester is New Hampshire’s only statewide daily newspaper.
“If that scenario plays out, we could have a three-way race on our hands,” he said.