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Michigan and Arizona Primaries

February 21, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: The next challenges: Arizona and Michigan. One race features a favorite son; the other, yet another toss-up open primary. Two political reporters on the scene help us put both contests in perspective: Jeff Barker of the Arizona Republic, and Charlie Cain, the Lansing bureau chief for the Detroit News.

Charlie Cain, we just heard Ray Suarez say this is a lightening campaign, essentially a fast 48 hours for both candidates to prove their point. To whom? Who are the Michigan voters they’re trying to appeal to?

CHARLIE CAIN: Well, if you ask Senator McCain, he would say that he’s trying desperately to appeal to independent voters and Democrats who are free to take part in the Michigan primary. Polling that the Detroit News did last week showed it was a statistical dead heat, although Texas Governor Bush wins handily among Republicans, while McCain has a strong advantage over independents and Republicans. If the turnout includes as many as 4O percent independents, it could be a very good sign for McCain. If less than a quarter of them show up, it will be very good for McCain who enjoys the full support of the establishment in Michigan, beginning with Governor John Engler.

GWEN IFILL: But John McCain is clearly accounting on the unpredictability of Michigan voters. Pat Buchanan got 37 percent in 1996 and Ross Perot also did fairly well. What about those voters? Are they up for grabs?

CHARLIE CAIN: Well, there again you’re looking largely at the Reagan Democrats that Macomb County made famous. A lot of people think that McCain, that’s the tenth congressional district where David Bonior is the U.S. Representative, they think they have a strong chance here. The Republican Secretary of State, Candace Miller, who supports George Bush, took part in some volunteer phone banking over the weekend. They had more than 500 volunteers make more than 11,000 phone calls on behalf of George Bush. That unpredictable you talk about in Michigan also in 1988, Jesse Jackson won the Democratic caucus. 1972, George Wallace won the Democratic Primary. So Michigan voters have not always played it according to Hoyle.

GWEN IFILL: So who benefits from that?

CHARLIE CAIN: From unpredictability? I would think anything that takes you outside the mainstream GOP has got to play in John McCain’s favor.

GWEN IFILL: We hear a lot about the organizational strength in Michigan for Governor Bush, not for McCain as I think we may have misstated – discombobulated at the top – but what exactly is that? We’re talking about Governor John Engler and his support and — I guess his for lack of a better term machine. Is there such a thing?

CHARLIE CAIN: It’s not really a machine; it’s more of an organization, but they have been able to make thousands and thousands of get-out-the-vote phone calls. They’ve been doing literature drop. Right to Life of Michigan — which is endorsing Governor Bush –even though he and Senator McCain have similar records on the issue has made a major drop in Western Michigan. That’s more of a conservative belt in this state. So I think that the… in terms of the organizational strength that’s sort of a David and Goliath match up with Governor Bush clearly enjoying the power.

GWEN IFILL: Governor Engler has been working tirelessly for Governor Bush. But he says that his endorsement comes with half of his friends and all of his enemies. Is there… there seems to be at least some effort to undercut John Engler’s endorsement in Michigan. Can you explain it to us?

CHARLIE CAIN: We had a poll in today’s paper they’re showed… We asked people, are you more or less likely to vote for Governor Bush knowing that John Engler is pushing his candidacy? We found that 17 percent said they were less likely to vote for Governor Bush, and 24 percent said more likely. 57 percent said it didn’t make a difference. What we’re also seeing is that in some areas, some we Detroit lawmakers, some black ministers have been encouraging from the pulpit that voters go out and vote for McCain, not necessarily because they like him, but because they want to send a message to Governor Engler, who has been involved in a number of efforts in the past year, including one that removed the Detroit’s elected school board. The city somewhat feels they’re being picked on by Lansing and in specific by Governor Engler. They would like to see him sort of be toppled a little bit here.

GWEN IFILL: That effort to energize Democrats to vote for Republicans backfired in South Carolina. Can it work in Michigan? It’s a very different set of factors.

CHARLIE CAIN: It’s tough to figure out how it’s going to play. The Democratic Party leaders have said they want no part of this and they’re not encouraging their members. They said, hey, keep your powder dry until the March 11 caucuses when we’ll try to do what we can to send al gore off. So the party is not endorsing it. Whether this works, I don’t know. The primary is kind of confusing. I’m not certain that voters are sophisticated enough to follow that strategy.

GWEN IFILL: Jeff Barker of the Arizona Republic, Arizona is home to both conservatives like Barry Goldwater and a liberal icon like Morris Udall. Who are the Arizona voters here?

JEFF BARKER: Well, Arizona is really quite a mix. I think that the social conservatives aren’t quite as well organized here. I think the character of Arizona really is… Can be symbolized by the cowboy hat. You know, candidates in Arizona always wear cowboy hats. Pat Buchanan wore a black hat when he ran here in ’96. And I think it sort of symbolizes the old West, the independents. And I guess you can see that’s why John McCain is a pretty good fit in Arizona, because his whole presidential campaign is set up around being a maverick. That’s his image. He’s always been a guy who would symbolically wear a cowboy hat in Arizona.

GWEN IFILL: This is John McCain’s home state, yet George W. Bush has spent $2 million in television advertising and mass mailings and phone banking. Why is it that John McCain can’t simply relax and coast to victory in his home state?

JEFF BARKER: I think he may. I think he may be able to. I mean, the short answer is there is some dissension in the party, an awkward split really. The governor of Arizona, Governor Hull, endorsed George W. Bush. And in so doing, she raised questions not so much about Senator McCain’s positions, but about his temperament, his style. She kind of suggested that he was a bit of a political bully. And she told a story about holding the phone away from her ear one time when McCain was speaking to her on the phone. And so she raised that issue that was kind of a sensitive issue. They really have become sort of enemies. And the party is somewhat split. But I think McCain now is pretty well ahead in the polls. And I have to believe if you were really threatened by Bush and by Hull, he’d be in Arizona right now. As it, is he’s not going to arrive into Tucson until this evening.

GWEN IFILL: It is possible to figure out what the worst case scenario is for McCain by saying how many points he has to win by, 20 points, 30 points?

JEFF BARKER: I don’t know. You know, the polls show he’s up by at least a couple dozen. I any if… For the Bush people, I think… They’ve already tried to say that, you know, favorite sons like McCain should win by 40 or 50 points so obviously that’s their spin. If they can get anywhere near single digits, I think they would be happy. But I have to believe that in the beginning they felt they might get some traction out of what Governor Hull was saying, but it’s the same thing with McCain. He’s not here. Bush hasn’t been here so much either. So I think that maybe Bush is kind of conceding spending his time in Michigan and then heading to California.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned Pat Buchanan and the black hat four years ago. Steve Forbes won that by getting absentee voters to cast ballots. This time the absentee ballots are through the roof, more than double than last time. Do you have any idea what that means?

JEFF BARKER: I think the split between Hull and McCain, the two most popular Republican office holders in the state has generated a lot of interest. I don’t know this means somehow McCain is threatened, though, because I think that Steve Forbes won the race in ’96 partly because he got sort of the moneyed, corporate Republicans. I think a lot of those people are going to go to John McCain. Some of those will go to Bush, but John McCain has a good relationship and close relationship with companies like U.S. West, America West, Phelps Dodge. These are… This is where Steve Forbes drew a lot of his support in 1996. I think those people now are probably going to go for McCain.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Jeff Barker of the Arizona Republicand Charlie Cain of the Detroit News, you both have busy days ahead of you tomorrow; thank you very much for joining us tonight.