- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2000

Texas Gov. George W. Bush has the inside track with supporters of Arizona Sen. John McCain, according to a new CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll.

But a Newsweek survey shows that Mr. McCain's supporters are hard to categorize. A majority agree with Mr. Bush on school choice, but they side with Vice President Al Gore's views on targeted tax cuts, abortion rights and gun control.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore are emphasizing reform, hoping that is the key to Mr. McCain's supporters.

"He's a one-issue candidate political reform and yet the issue is not in the top 10 of what voters care about," said Jack Burkman, a fund-raiser for Mr. Bush.

"It's a complex question. There's no evidence that McCain supporters care about education or health care or anything like that."

Exit polls show independent centrists and liberal Republicans were drawn to Mr. McCain because of his war-hero past and straight-talking aura not because campaign-finance reform is a central national issue.

In New York, only 19 percent of Mr. McCain's backers cited campaign-finance reform as their foremost concern. In the California primary, it was only 14 percent. The percentages ran in the same range for Ohio, Maryland and Michigan.

Mr. McCain's independent vote "really is up for grabs," said Andy Kohut, an independent pollster. "There is no magic bullet for either candidate in attracting these people."

"There is no 'McCain vote.' The exit data from the primaries show that John McCain's supporters are not a sort of portable voting bloc than can be won en masse," Mr. Kohut said.

"That is why going after this bloc as swing voters is very difficult," he said.

Mr. Bush picked up 47 percent of the Arizona senator's supporters, while Mr. Gore gained 41 percent, according to a USA Today/CNN/ Gallup poll conducted March 10-12.

Mr. Bush gained 80 percent of the McCain Republicans, 46 percent of McCain independents and 13 percent of McCain Democrats.

Reports circulate that Mr. McCain plans to use the delegates he won in seven states for a platform fight at the Republican nominating convention this summer.

A spokesman for Mr. McCain did not return a call seeking comment.

Some McCain supporters hope that his insistence on campaign-finance reform concessions will lead to a third-party bid in the Reform Party or one of its offshoots.

A March 9-10 Newsweek poll of 803 adults found that if a three-way election were held now, Mr. McCain would place second with 32 percent among all voters, behind Mr. Bush's 35 percent and ahead of Mr. Gore's 28 percent.

Mr. McCain would capture 29 percent of the Democrats, compared with Mr. Bush's 9 percent and Mr. Gore's 60 percent. Mr. McCain would walk away with the independents' vote, taking 42 percent to Mr. Bush's 33 percent and Mr. Gore's 19 percent.

Mr. Burkman hopes Mr. McCain will stay in the fold, but he believes the senator will bolt the Republican Party.

"I think we're going to see a four-man race," Mr. Burkman said, referring to Mr. Bush, Mr. Gore, Pat Buchanan as the Reform Party nominee and Mr. McCain as another independent.

As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, however, Mr. McCain has a powerful incentive not to bolt and go independent.

"He would cripple himself in the Senate and destroy any chance to run for president as a Republican in 2004, if Bush doesn't win, or in 2008," said Tom Rath, a Bush supporter and former New Hampshire attorney general.

"It cuts off more options for McCain than it creates," he said.

Mr. McCain has said repeatedly he intends to remain a Republican.

Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura spoke with Mr. McCain last week. He says the Arizona senator has no plans to run as an independent.

An aide to Mr. Ventura believes that even if Mr. McCain did so, the logistics of attempting a third-party bid this late in the election would be formidable.

"Unless McCain immediately begins gathering signatures for ballot access, it will be too late" to get on the ballots in 50 states before the Reform Party begins its nominating process this summer, said Ventura aide Phil Madsen.

Mr. McCain has another option besides biding his time in the Senate for a few more years or trying for the Reform nomination now.

He could form his own party and use Mr. Ventura's Minnesota Independence Party, which has divorced itself from Ross Perot's national party, as a base.

"The idea of McCain heading a new party of the political center would be highly marketable," Mr. Madsen said.

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