Revitalized Bush takes aim at Gore as McCain insurgency fades
AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush savored a "national victory" on Tuesday as his juggernaut campaign rolled over the insurgent hopes of Arizona Sen. John McCain in key Super Tuesday battlegrounds and re-tooled for a formidable fight with his likely Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore.
"Tonight we have good news from sea to shining sea," Bush told supporters at a victory rally in Austin. "We were challenged and we met the challenge. We were tested and we were equal to the test. We promised a national campaign, and tonight we have a national victory."
In Los Angeles, a weary McCain congratulated Bush on his victories as campaign aides conceded to CNN that the Arizona senator would look hard at the future of his presidential bid.
"My friends, we won a few and lost a few today, and over the next few days, we'll take some time to enjoy our victories and take stock of our losses," McCain told supporters.
Although McCain swept much of New England, key Bush wins in delegate-rich California, New York, Ohio and Maryland effectively dashed the Arizona senator's hopes for another shift in momentum that would carry his lagging campaign forward. McCain and Bush had traded victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan and Virginia.
The Arizona senator boasted that his campaign had attracted waves of Democrats and independents into Republican primary races and that his message of reform had helped the Republican Party "recover its purpose."
"I am so proud, so proud, that this message has struck a chord in the hearts of so many Americans of every race, creed and political persuasion," he said.
In Austin, a smiling Bush couldn't help but express relief that his campaign -- in all likelihood -- had finally put down the McCain insurgency. "I congratulate John. We've had our disagreements, but I respect him and I respect his commitment to reform," Bush said.
He also congratulated Al Gore on his sweeping victories in Tuesday's Democratic contests, before lambasting the vice president as the "candidate of the status quo in Washington, D.C."
Rough road ahead for McCain
As in previous contests, McCain attracted independent and crossover Democrat votes, yet again failed to garner a majority of coveted Republican votes.
"That crossover vote shrank ... fewer Democrats and independents bothered to vote for McCain because they had a race in their own party. They voted for Gore or for Bradley," said CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider.
Neither Republican candidate reached the magic number of 1,034 delegates but McCain was already referring to the race in the past tense before most polls closed on Tuesday.
Sounding reflective, McCain told reporters: "We've had a great run." He claimed to have sparked a "kind of prairie fire out there -- getting people involved. A majority of Americans are looking for something they haven't had for awhile."
Aides said that McCain would focus on Friday's primary in Colorado, the next major GOP contest, shelling out $200,000 to buy new TV ads in the state.
But money has become more than a factor than momentum. The McCain campaign has just $4 million left to spend before it hits the $40 million spending cap imposed by candidates who accept federal matching funds. Bush -- who did not accept matching funds -- is not bound by those constraints and has several fund raisers scheduled in the near future.
With the March 14 primary choices ranging from bad to worse for the Arizona senator, McCain desperately needed to score wins outside New England on Tuesday if he harbored any realistic hopes of soldiering on.
The Texas governor is favored to trounce McCain next Tuesday, when six southern states -- Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Bush's own Texas -- hold contests to award 341 Republican delegates.
"It's troubling for McCain because he's lost in South Carolina, Virginia and now Georgia leading up to next week," said Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 GOP presidential campaign.
Bush hopes to heal personal rift
If McCain does remains in the race, he will likely try to pick up delegates in Tennessee and Florida -- which is governed by his rival's brother, Jeb Bush -- before turning most of his attention North toward the March 21 Illinois primary.
But the candidate himself has expressed concern that the clock is ticking in his campaign. "The question is, is there going to be enough time?" he asked reporters Tuesday.
A supporter forms a "W" framing Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. George W. Bush during his Super Tuesday victory celebration in Austin.
The Bush campaign was banking that a landslide victory on Tuesday would drive McCain from the race, allowing the Texas governor to turn his attention to Gore, who polls show has gained on the GOP front-runner in hypothetical November match ups.
From the governor's mansion in Austin, Bush talked about healing any rift with McCain in the aftermath of a bitter campaign marked by feuds over character issues, religion and abortion.
"Obviously if there's any personal issues between me and my opponents ... we'll sit down and talk," Bush said Tuesday.
Although he and McCain regarded themselves as friends earlier in the primary season, their rivalry turned harsh and personal after McCain's upset win in the New Hampshire primary, followed by Bush's victory in South Carolina. Of the two probable party nominees, Bush appears to be more bruised than Gore.
"I think you would have to say that Gov. Bush has had a rougher passage to the nomination," said Washington Post columnist David Broder. "McCain stung him badly in New Hampshire and then came back from the South Carolina to win again in Michigan ... the kind of state that represents a battleground in a general election. Losing to McCain there really did inflict some wounds on Bush."
Bush takes aim at Gore
Bush's staff is already raising money and drawing up battle plans for November. The Texas governor said he was prepared for an even tougher campaign against the vice president and his Democratic allies.
Both Gore and McCain have repeatedly railed against the Texas governor since his appearance last month at Bob Jones University, a conservative South Carolina college notorious for its ban on interracial dating and the anti-Catholic views of its leaders.
"It's the politics of personal destruction. If you don't happen to agree with
them on an issue, they'd much rather fight then debate," Bush said Tuesday.