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banner Wednesday, 23 February, 2000, 16:50 GMT
Fighting for hearts and minds

By the BBC's Gordon Corera

"What a difference a couple of days make" quipped Arizona Senator John McCain after his crucial victory in Michigan.

Now it is McCain who is drawing in independent voters, showing he has what it takes to broaden the Republican's appeal

Even his own staff seemed less than confident in the days leading up to the Tuesday's primary, but the voters surprised everyone once again.

Michigan has given the Republican primary campaign a new lease of life and again shown McCain's broad-ranging appeal.

McCain's most recent TV ad in Michigan described the Senator as "a Republican like Ronald Reagan who can win".

Almost all Republican politicians try to claim the mantle of Reagan, but running the ad in Michigan had a special resonance. Michigan is the spiritual home to the so-called Reagan Democrats - independent minded, centrist Democrats who were attracted to the Republican Party by Ronald Reagan in the 80s.

New coalition

In 1992 and 1996 they were wooed back by Bill Clinton whose New Democrat message was, in part, designed to appeal to them.

Now, John McCain is threatening to do what Reagan did and bring them back to the Republican fold to forge a new electoral coalition.
Michigan primary
Democrats:
17% of voters
82% of whom voted for McCaine
Independents
35% of voters
67% of whom voted for McCain
Exit polls show how this phenomenon worked in Michigan.

Democrats made up a remarkable 17% of the primary electorate and 82% of them voted for McCain. In the case of the Independents, who themselves contributed 35% of the vote, more than two thirds of them voted for McCain.

This means that less than half of the people taking part in the Republican primary were actually Republicans (48%) and they backed Bush by almost exactly the same margin as Independents backed McCain - two to one.

Bush had a 29-point lead among those who described themselves as conservative, while McCain had a 31-point lead among those who said they were moderate.

Reagan appeal

We are creating a new majority my friends, a McCain majority - and we are Al Gore's worst nightmare

Senator John McCain
What this tells us is that McCain has a real - some would say Reaganesque - appeal to Independents and Democrats.

Bush meanwhile continues to have his support base firmly focussed on Republican Party stalwarts, and that's bad news for George W.

Last year when the Bush bandwagon looked unstoppable, much of his appeal was based on the fact that he was a moderate, centrist, "compassionate conservative", different from the harsh right-wingers in Congress who had alienated the public.

Bush's appeal was based on his supposed ability to win back the White House by appealing to the centre.

Now though it is McCain who is drawing in independent voters, showing that in a key state like Michigan, he has what it takes to broaden the Republican's appeal.

Trouble ahead

"We are creating a new majority my friends," said the Arizona senator, "a McCain majority - and we are Al Gore's worst nightmare."

McCain must now also appeal to the regular, conservative base of the Republican party

But while a McCain candidacy would be a nightmare for Gore, it is still not clear quite how likely it is that he will be the Republican candidate in November.

This is partly because the very nature of McCain's Michigan coalition spells trouble ahead for 7 March - Super Tuesday.

Then a dozen states will vote and 60% of the delegates needed to win the nomination will be up for grabs.

But the problem for McCain is that a number of primaries, including the two biggest California and New York, will distribute their delegates based only on the votes of Republicans, not the independents who have sustained McCain.

Conservative appeal

They're the ones who played such a crucial role in his New Hampshire and Michigan wins.

In South Carolina and Michigan, McCain lost heavily among registered Republicans, so to have a chance of winning the nomination, McCain must now also appeal to the regular, conservative base of the Republican party.

Hence on Tuesday night he appealed to party loyalists: "Don't fear this campaign my fellow Republicans. Join it."

And later: "I am a proud Reagan conservative. I love the Republican Party. It is my home".

Reagan may have become the most popular Republican President of the 20th century, but people often forget that his party didn't pick him first time he ran.

McCain has shown he is electable, now he will have to show he is acceptable to his own party.

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See also:

09 Feb 00 | Election news
Candidates feel the strain
18 Feb 00 | Election news
The gloves come off
21 Feb 00 | Election news
McCain down, but not out
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