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Wednesday, 23 February, 2000, 06:08 GMT
McCain's comeback

McCain with a light saber
John McCain takes on the establishment

By Paul Reynolds in Washington

The rollercoaster ride for the Republican nomination goes on. This time, it is Arizona Senator John McCain who is heading up and Texas Governor George W Bush who is heading down.

Hold onto your seat. This ride could continue. It might be decided on 7 March, so-called Super Tuesday, when a large number of states, including California and New York, hold their primaries. And if not then, a week later, on 14 March, a host of southern states votes. The last primaries are not until June. If you don't like presidential politics, do a Rip Van Winkle.

After Michigan, hard on the heels of his big loss in South Carolina, McCain could be called the Comeback Kid except that would not fit a man in his sixties whose main strength is that, as one of his supporters put it after his victory in New Hampshire, "You don't send a boy to do a man's job".

That's his main appeal over George Bush the younger, "the boy" as his gaffe prone father, the language mangling former President George Bush the elder, put it so unhelpfully in New Hampshire.

Charm offensive

McCain is a real phenomenon. Famous for his temper and for making enemies, he has nevertheless charmed the media here and is charming many voters.

Bush looking depressed Bush: Missing the chance to bury his opponent
But a word of warning - he could be a contentious president. He is a man whose record shows that he thrives on confrontations. His presidential term or terms could be filled by arguments with Russia, China, the European Union (especially France) and Congress.

Only this week, he called for a "rogue state roll back" under which he would encourage and arm opponents of leaders like Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

Cross party appeal

He appealed especially to independent voters in Michigan, where the primary is open to all comers. You didn't have to be a Republican to vote. In fact, although George Bush won well among Republicans (67%), McCain won overall because he drew in not just independents (80% went for him) but Democrats (18% of the total vote) as well.

John Engler Michigan Governor John Engler may have been a liability for Bush
So much so that the cry went up from the Bush camp: "We woz robbed!" Only about half the voters were actually registered Republicans.

McCain is forging a new coalition.

There were claims that some of the Democrats were spoilers, urged on by local politicians keen to score points against Bush's main supporter in Michigan, the governor John Engler. Engler has angered some groups by cutting welfare and urban programmes.

This crossover vote is not altogether bad for McCain, who wants everybody ("libertarians, vegetarians..." as he playfully puts it) to flock to his banner. It strengthens his argument that he could win the presidential race itself.

But it will be a problem for him as the Republican contest gains momentum if he cannot also bond with the Republican faithful.

Bush's mixed message

As for George W, he blew his biggest chance of putting McCain out of his way. Somewhat mixed up as to whether he is a "compassionate conservative" or a "reformer with results", he has to slug it out now and hope that the Republican party will rally round him in his hour of need.

Next Tuesday, he might win Virginia, but McCain could pick up Washington state - and then it's onto the big one on 7 March, and maybe beyond.

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See also:
22 Feb 00 |  Americas
Internet filter question on Michigan ballot
20 Feb 00 |  Americas
Bush wins South Carolina
20 Feb 00 |  Americas
McCain fights on
20 Feb 00 |  Americas
Conservatives reject radical option
07 Jan 00 |  States
07 Jan 00 |  States

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