John McCain and his wife Cindy vote in the GOP primary in their home state of Arizona Tuesday. (AP Photo)

A rejuvenated McCain tops Bush in Mich., Ariz.

By Michael Kranish and Jill Zuckman, Globe Staff, 2/23/2000

EARBORN, Mich. - Senator John McCain's campaign roared back to life yesterday with wins in Michigan and his home state of Arizona. McCain beat George W. Bush in the open Michigan contest by cobbling together a combination of moderate Republicans, independents, and a surprisingly large number of Democrats.

In a symbol of this topsy-turvy election, McCain's Michigan victory came as the ink was barely dry on many ''Bush comeback'' stories. Exactly three weeks earlier, McCain won by 18 points in New Hampshire. Then Bush won South Carolina. Now the McCain comeback launches the Republican contest into a dramatic two-week dash toward the March 7 blockbuster round of more than a dozen primaries and caucuses.

Bush had hoped to dispatch McCain in Michigan, where the Texas governor was backed by the political machine of the state's controversial governor, Republican John Engler. But Engler's efforts may have backfired by bringing out Democrats to vote for McCain.

McCain had 50 percent of the vote in Michigan to Bush's 44, with 87 percent of precincts reporting. Former ambassador Alan Keyes trailed with 5 percent. In Arizona, with 79 percent of the returns tallied, McCain was thumping Bush by 60 percent to 36 percent, with Keyes a distant third, at 4 percent.

An ebullient but soft-spoken McCain accepted his victory as a sign that his insurgent campaign is taking root with the national electorate.

''We are reformers, Republican reformers who can make this party bigger and change politics for future generations,'' McCain said. ''Don't fear this, my fellow Republicans, join it. This is where you belong. We are creating a new majority, my friends, a McCain majority ... and we are Al Gore's worst nightmare.''

Bush, reacting to the news that several television networks had called the race for McCain, offered his congratulations to McCain, but implied that some upcoming contests will be tougher for the Arizona senator and easier for him - especially the GOP primaries that don't allow Democrats or independents to participate. If that had been the case in Michigan, Bush suggested, he would have won.

''Among Republicans and independents, among those two groups, there is no question who the winner is and you're looking at him,'' Bush said.

Until yesterday, the presidential campaign had been conducted in the smaller states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Delaware, and South Carolina. McCain's performance in the much larger and more urbanized state of Michigan and his easy win in his home state of Arizona give him a legitimate claim to being a serious contender in the weeks ahead.

Exit polls showed that Bush got about two-thirds of the Republican vote, as he did in South Carolina. But the similarities ended there. While 60 percent of the South Carolina vote came from Republicans, only 49 percent of the Michigan vote came from within the GOP. A third were independents. But the big difference was that 18 percent of Michigan voters were Democrats, twice the percentage of South Carolina. McCain won the Democratic vote by a 4-to-1 ratio, justifying his gamble to go for the crossover vote. Bush had hoped that McCain's appeal for Democratic votes would backfire, as it may have in South Carolina, and result in a larger turnout by Republicans.

Michigan was supposed to be not only a firewall for Bush, but one made of fireproof asbestos, as Engler, a Bush backer, put it. But Engler's power is double-edged, attracting many supporters but also repelling others. The 15 percent of those surveyed who said Engler's endorsement meant a great deal voted 2-to-1 for McCain.

Engler last night accused McCain of ''renting Democrats for a day'' to beat Bush. ''John McCain isn't party building, he's party-borrowing,'' Engler said.

Bush, during a campaign stopover in Kansas City, also drew a dark picture of the role of Democrats in the GOP process.

''There are going to be people who come in our primaries ... with one intention: to vote against somebody so they can go back and vote for Al Gore,'' he said. ''That's the facts.''

The black vote, only 1 percent of the turnout in South Carolina, was 5 percent in Michigan, and it went overwhelmingly for McCain, the exit polls showed.

McCain won all 30 convention delegates in Arizona by virtue of his win there. In Michigan, the delegate picture is murkier. The state sends 58 delegates to the Republican National Convention, most of them apportioned according to who prevailed in each of the state's congressional districts.

The road ahead remains challenging for McCain. His defeat in South Carolina underscored his weakness in the South, where religious conservatives, who so far have tilted heavily to Bush, are a powerful constituency. Moreover, a number of large upcoming states, including New York, do not allow Democrats and independents to vote in the primaries, which will likely hurt McCain's chances.

Bush had launched an expensive strategy that sought a quick victory in the early states. He spent $50 million of his $70 million campaign war chest before Jan. 31, indicating his desire to quickly end any challenge. But now the campaign in effect begins anew with McCain again hoping to capitalize on a victory for a fund-raising spurt.

McCain, speaking to supporters at a Phoenix hotel, gave a victory address that was, in its low-key tone, a stark contrast to his bitter-sounding concession speech just three days earlier in South Carolina. Instead of attacking Bush's campaign tactics, McCain sought to attract his opponent's possible supporters.

''Now we move ahead,'' McCain said. ''Our crusade is spreading from state to state, attracting new people to our party. I'm going to give you your government back.''

Bush was in the awkward position of flying across the country as the results became known. Bush had hoped to deliver a victory speech during a brief stop in Missouri, but instead he spoke uncertainly about early returns and then headed to California.

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said in an MSNBC interview that McCain won only because of the huge Democratic vote, and noted that the percentage of Republicans who voted for McCain in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and then Michigan continues to drop.

''He's going down every step of the way among Republicans,'' Fleischer said. ''The fundamental flaw of the McCain candidacy is that it needs Democrats to win. You can't win the Republican nomination on the backs of Democrats.''

McCain, in his victory speech, seemed eager to address that concern, reminding his fellow Republicans that he is one with them in his conservative values.

''I am a proud Reagan conservative,'' he said. ''I love the Republican Party. It is my home.''

Yesterday's primaries came 72 hours after Bush's huge win in South Carolina, where Christian conservatives massed against McCain. At times, the brief battle in Michigan took on the tone of a religious war, with McCain appealing to Catholic voters to express their displeasure with Bush for visiting Bob Jones University in South Carolina, an institution that views Catholicism with suspicion and bans interracial dating.

Bush, on the other hand, was aided by phone calls from the Rev. Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition, and by phone calls and postcards from the Right to Life antiabortion group of Michigan.

Here in Michigan, however, fundamentalist Christians are far less of a force than in South Carolina. About 13 to 17 percent of the population considers itself part of the Christian right, compared to more than a third in South Carolina. And about 25 percent of Michigan voters are Catholic, unlike in South Carolina.

Robertson taped messages phoned to voters urging them to ''protect unborn babies and restore religious freedom once again in America.''

Robertson said McCain chose a national campaign chairman, former senator Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, who is ''a vicious bigot'' and who described conservative Christians as ''antiabortion zealots, homophobes, and would-be censors.''

McCain, meanwhile, benefited from phone calls to voters that said, ''This is a Catholic voter alert,'' describing Bush's visit to Bob Jones University.

Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, said he had not seen such a hotly contested presidential primary here in at least 25 years.

''There's never really been anything like the phone banking and the negative messages,'' he added. Phone calls to independent voters and Democrats were also unprecedented, he said.

McCain's campaign issued a news release touting a new CNN-USA Today poll that shows McCain beating Vice President Al Gore in a general election matchup, 59 percent to 35 percent, compared to Bush's more tepid 50 percent to 45 percent.

''The cloak of inevitability that once hung about Governor Bush has frayed away, and Republicans are starting to realize that John McCain is the only candidate who can and will win against Al Gore,'' said Dan Schnur, McCain's communications director.

Bush, casting himself as the victim of a negative campaign as he had in South Carolina a week earlier, started his day by complaining to a group of voters about negative phone calls he said the McCain campaign was making around the state.

''He is a man who takes the high horse in his language but takes the low road when it comes to campaigning,'' Bush said.

Bush refused, however, to take responsibility for phone calls being made in support of his candidacy by Robertson, attacking Rudman and portraying McCain as supporting abortion rights.

''We have nothing to do with that,'' Bush said.

Globe Staff writers Anne E. Kornblut, traveling with Bush, and Mary Leonard and Charles Radin, traveling with McCain, contributed to this report.