Victories for McCain in lesser states not enough to stop Bush

 

As California voters headed to the polls in record numbers yesterday to vote for party nominees in the presidential election, the man who has stirred nearly unprecedented political passions this year did what he has always done on election day.

Senator John McCain settled into a Los Angeles hotel room with his wife Cindy to watch a movie. Mr McCain interrupted his traditional election day activity only long enough to do two local radio interview. Otherwise he did what everyone else interested in politics did yesterday . . . he watched television and waited for the results.

The early returns were disappointing for Mr McCain, who was being counselled by some advisors to withdraw from the race.

With 613 convention delegates at stake in 13 states, Mr McCain appeared to be losing badly in Ohio and Missouri. His opponent, Governor George Bush of Texas, handily won Georgia, while Mr McCain appeared to be winning less critical New England states. The New York contest appeared to be extremely close.

In California, turnout in the afternoon was running high. In Los Angeles County at 3 p.m., 21 per cent of the electorate had voted. That compares to just 15 per cent in 1996, the last presidential primary, thus lending credence to the idea that Mr McCain has galvanised voters.

The California primary process presented a particularly daunting gauntlet for Mr McCain's effort to trump front-runner Mr Bush.

All registered voters, regardless of registration as Democrats or Republicans, may vote in the primary. That is called the popular vote, or "beauty contest" as some are referring to it. Each party is also selecting delegates to its national convention, delegates who will be pledged to support one candidate or the other. Only the votes of those registered as Republican, for example, will be counted toward the delegates.

In other words, Mr McCain could win the overall popular vote and yet lose all the Republican delegates.

Some were predicting that was exactly what would happen. At the Mar Vista Family centre in Los Angeles, three veteran middle-aged volunteers manned the election booths. "It's busier than I've ever seen it," said one. "We had 50 people vote in three hours. There have been some election where we haven't had 50 people vote all day."

It is that high turnout among all voters that Mr McCain was hoping would carry him forward. It appeared, however, that his hopes were unrealised in the key states of California, New York and Ohio.

At a university rally in Los Angeles on Monday, Mr McCain and several hundred youthful supporters braved a pouring rain as the candidate urged them get out and vote.

Last week's televised debate between Democrats Senator Bill Bradley and the Vice-President, Al Gore, drew 1.3 million viewers; by contrast, the Republican debate between Mr McCain, Mr Bush and Alan Keyes drew 2.8 million viewers.

In addition. Mr McCain drew some $10 million in small campaign contributions just in the last month, with 40 per cent of that coming from visitors to his Internet site.

However, even that was not be enough to overcome Mr Bush's considerable money lead and early organising in the key large states. California Republican activists, for example, committed themselves early on to Mr Bush's campaign, as did their counterparts in New York.

The highest-ranked elected Republican in California, Secretary of State Bill Jones, recently witched to Mr McCain, as did San Diego mayor, Ms Susan Golding, but experts said their endorsements would be unlikely to overcome Mr Bush's lead.

New York promised a better prospect for Mr McCain, with prominent Republican congressman Mr Peter King, one of the most vocal supporters of Ireland in the US Congress, switching from an early endorsement of Mr Bush to head up Mr McCain's campaign. Mr King was confidently predicting that Mr McCain would win New York.

Experts remained wondering whether Mr McCain would withdraw or would carry his "crusade" to the Republican convention in Philadelphia this summer. Mr McCain said he would make further announcements today.

The Democrats, on the other hand, will have no such dilemma. Mr Gore handily beat Mr Bradley, who is expected to withdraw from the race tomorrow, thus leaving the August Democratic convention in Los Angeles a mere coronation.