||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
Stuart Rothernberg: Bush Roars Back; McCain's Hopes Dim
After disappointing showings in Michigan and Arizona, Gov. George W. Bush roared back Tuesday with solid victories in two key primary states -- Virginia and Washington -- as well as a strong win in the North Dakota caucuses.
Bush's unexpectedly strong showing puts Sen. John McCain in a serious political hole, virtually forcing the Arizona senator to win California, New York and all of New England next Tuesday in the all-important March 7 primaries.
Bush's wins in Virginia and Washington were important for a number of reasons. First, recent losses had raised questions about both his personal appeal and his campaign's strategy, and he needed a victory to calm supporters and quiet critics.
Second, both states held open primaries, and Bush needed to demonstrate that he could beat McCain in states where Independent and Democratic voters could participate. Bush lost both groups, according to Virginia exit polls, but the Texas governor was strong enough overall to beat McCain anyway.
Third, Bush's wins in Washington and North Dakota demonstrate that he can win outside the South, re-establishing the governor as a formidable front-runner for the nomination and as someone with broad appeal.
And fourth, Bush needed victories to change the subject from his alleged insensitivity to Catholics to questions about McCain's viability. It will now be more difficult for McCain to dictate the campaign agenda, since voters apparently repudiated his charges about Bush.
McCain knew that Virginia would be tough for him. He angered residents of Northern Virginia by trying to get more flights in and out of Reagan National Airport, and his stance on tobacco was controversial in tobacco-growing parts of the state. But he hoped for an upset by appealing to Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans who are uncomfortable with Bush's support from evangelical political leader Pat Robertson.
Bush's victory in Washington State, however, has to be disappointing to McCain and his strategists. While an element of the state GOP is quite conservative on taxes and abortion, the Northwest's reputation for moderation and political independence gave the senator reasons for optimism.
The Virginia exit polls also offered McCain some worrisome news. McCain, who has had increasingly favorable ratings from voters around the country, received surprisingly poor ratings from primary-goers in Virginia. While 30 percent of primary voters in the Old Dominion had an unfavorable opinion of Bush, 38 percent had an unfavorable opinion of McCain. Bush's favorable rating of 68 percent easily bested McCain's 59 percent.
Primary voters were also more critical of McCain's attacks on Bush than of the governor's attacks on McCain. That finding raises questions about the senator's late attacks on Roberston and the religious right, as well as his efforts to portray Bush as anti-Catholic.
And once again, as in South Carolina, McCain underperformed among veterans, virtually breaking even with Bush among a voter group that, at least at first blush, should have been inclined to support McCain, a war hero.
With the most recent polling showing Bush maintaining a solid double-digit lead in California, and Bush and McCain deadlocked in New York state, the senator finds his prospects of winning the GOP nomination growing dim. Bush is certain to do well March 14, when Texas, Florida and a number of other Southern and Southwestern states vote, so McCain needs a resounding win March 7 to keep any hope alive of overtaking Bush for the nomination.