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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Stuart Rothenberg: Bush bounces back

February 19, 2000
Web posted at: 10:42 p.m. EST (0342 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush posted a solid double-digit win over Arizona Sen. John McCain Saturday in South Carolina, resuscitating his fading campaign and propelling him toward Tuesday's important Michigan primary. But the governor's victory, though absolutely critical and exceeding expectations, certainly doesn't guarantee him his party's nomination.

McCain had hoped to win the Palmetto State's Republican primary with the help of Democrats and independents, and a victory would have been an important step for him to the GOP nomination. But his showing, though far short of his prediction, was strong enough to reiterate that he is a serious opponent to Bush. And it increases the stakes in Michigan for both candidates.

Bush, whose father wasn't the darling of the Christian Right, won in South Carolina because of strong support from Republicans and from social issue conservatives, many of them part of the Religious Right.

Exit polling showed the Texan carried white Religious Right voters 57 percent to 38 percent, while the two Republicans split South Carolina voters who said they weren't part of the Religious Right. And while McCain easily won the 38 percent of primary voters why described themselves a either moderates or liberals, he got clobbered among self-described conservatives, who went for Bush by more than 2-to-1.

While Democratic and independent turnout was up from past South Carolina primaries, Republicans apparently also turned out in big numbers. More than six out of ten primary voters considered themselves Republicans, and Bush won 68 percent of those voters. Although McCain carried 55 percent of primary voters who had never before voted in a GOP primary, Bush won a credible 42 percent of those voters.

One core group that was critical to McCain, veterans, failed to deliver decisively for the senator. Exit polling showed McCain winning veterans just 49 percent to 47 percent, not nearly what he needed to overcome Bush's 55 percent to 38 percent margin among non-veterans.

Interestingly, Bush was viewed by primary voters as no less of a reformer than McCain, who has stressed his anti-establishment credentials for months.

Now, the GOP spotlight turns to Michigan.

According to polls conducted last week, Bush was trailing the senator by a handful of points in that state. But the Texan's victory in the Palmetto State could cause a "bounce" in Michigan, enhancing the governor's chances and, quite possibly, giving him a lead in post-South Carolina polling in Michigan.

The short two-day break before Tuesday's voting is a huge asset for Bush. McCain doesn't have time to change his strategy, and it will be hard for him to get his message out in the face of reporters' questions about his loss in South Carolina.

But the senator is far from a basket case yet. His strength in South Carolina among moderates and Independents gives him reasons for optimism in Michigan, where Independents and Democrats are again eligible to vote in the GOP primary. Moreover, Michigan has shown an affinity for populists in the past.

Make no mistake about it: McCain can't afford another double-digit loss in Michigan. But while Bush has the enthusiastic backing of Gov. John Engler and the momentum from Saturday's results, it's not yet clear how Michigan will go.


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Saturday, February 19, 2000

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