White-Hot John McCain Goes After New York With Guerrilla Staff

Now that Senator John McCain of Arizona has won his crusade for democracy and open government in New York, he has to face a reality almost as fearsome as New York’s election laws: As he gears up for the state’s Presidential primary on March 7, he has few supporters, little money and negligible organization to face the best-funded, best-organized Presidential campaign in memory.

For the moment, anyway, Mr. McCain is focusing on his key matchup in South Carolina with Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. But, on the heels of his victory over Bush supporters who tried to keep him off the New York ballot, Mr. McCain said he was “confident I can win the State of New York.” Amazing what a little procedural victory can do for an insurgent’s confidence.

Mr. McCain’s presence on the primary ballot may represent a victory for open elections, but it was a decided defeat for the state’s Republican organization, which tried to block the Senator at the behest of Mr. Bush’s campaign. The bitter criticism of the state Republicans’ heavy-handed tactics was just one sign that the vaunted state G.O.P. machine is in disarray. Six years after capturing the Governor’s mansion, the Republicans are squabbling among each other and seem utterly out of control. Gov. George Pataki isn’t getting along with State Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno, the McCain victory has led to all manner of finger-pointing, and now, Representative Rick Lazio of Long Island has revived his threat to challenge Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in a U.S. Senate primary for the Republican nomination

Should Mr. Lazio enter the race, despite Governor Pataki’s public endorsement of Mr. Giuliani several months ago, the Republican Party would be plunged into a bitter civil war in the midst of a critical election year.

While Republican disarray could play into Mr. McCain’s hands, the fact remains that he faces a huge challenge if he is to prevail here. There are 3 million registered Republicans in New York, living in 10 different media markets. Even the most energetic candidate can’t meet every last voter, as they can in small states. And New York’s primary is open to party members only–so Mr. McCain won’t be able to reach out to independents and Democrats. In New Hampshire, Mr. McCain’s startling victory was made possible by a huge number of independents.

In reaching out to hard-core Republican primary voters, it’s important to have expertise and support from pros who know how to get the job done. And here again, it’s hard to imagine how Mr. McCain will repeat his New England success in New York. The extent of Mr. McCain’s support among Republican officeholders can be summed up fairly quickly: He has the backing of a pair of Staten Islanders, Borough President Guy Molinari and State Senator John Marchi, two men who are not always found in genial agreement, as well as a few other local officials. Arrayed against him is every important Republican elected official in the state–Governor Pataki, Mayor Giuliani and the entire Congressional delegation.

That said, the McCain campaign really does think lightning will strike in New York. “We’re going to win New York because of John McCain’s message and his grassroots support,” said Nancy Ives, Mr. McCain’s press secretary. “We’re a new kind of campaign, which throws conventional wisdom out the window. Our strategy might not stack up with political science majors and professors and journalists, but it’s a winning strategy.”

“It’s very simple, really,” said Mr. McCain’s New York political director, Gerry O’Brien. “Historically, only 15 to 30 percent of Republicans bother to vote in primaries. And you can find out who they are, and target them, and get them out the door. I’m sitting here sending volunteers to ring doorbells to get hard-core primary voters. So we’re relying less on TV and radio, and more on a real grassroots effort.”

That strategy is fundamentally different from, say, California, where primaries are not restricted to party members. To reach a mass of voters, and not just a core of party activists and known primary voters, candidates have to spend lots of money on TV ads. And California uses a winner-take-all system, which means the candidate with the most votes gets all of the state’s delegates, while, in New York, delegates are awarded on a proportional basis.

Still, “there will be an appropriate television buy” in New York, Ms. Ives insisted, though she wouldn’t discuss specifics. How effective those ads will be remains to be seen–after all, there isn’t much of a precedent for a contested New York Republican Presidential primary. “Some of the things that are being said in places like South Carolina–with [Gov.] George Bush going to the right–are going to overshoot New York,” said Dr. Lee Miringoff of the Marist College Institute of Public Opinion. “So there may be an opening here for McCain.”

There’s certainly more of an opening than there was a few months, or even weeks, ago. According to a Marist poll conducted in early February, 46 percent of likely voters supported Mr. Bush, while 35 percent supported Mr. McCain. In December, the Marist poll had Mr. Bush leading by 44 points.

The Marist numbers may bode well for Mr. McCain, but there are other numbers–those with dollar signs preceding them–that favor Mr. Bush. He has raised a record-shattering $70 million, which pays for an organization that could airlift voters to the polls, if necessary. Mr. McCain has just five paid staff members and, with the exception of Mr. Molinari, Mr. Marchi and national finance co-chair Georgette Mosbacher, no well-known supporters.

Ironically, however, the Bush campaign no longer is touting its long list of supporters. Instead, Mr. Bush’s supporters are trying to emphasize the candidate’s other strengths. It’s a way of de-emphasizing Mr. Bush’s campaign-by-résumé, which suddenly seems top-heavy and unimaginative. “We fully expect that Governor Bush will carry the day,” said Mr. Pataki’s spokesman, Mike McKeon. “The fact that he reaches out to all people, that he has support from the African-American community in Texas, the fact that he’s been a reformer on issues like education, will count for a lot in New York.” But, privately, even some allies of Mr. Pataki and Mr. Bush now fear that Mr. McCain may pull off an upset in New York.

Representative Peter King of Long Island, nominally a Bush supporter, pointed out that “a month is a lifetime in politics, but right now the trend is going to McCain. I haven’t had anybody stop me on the street to talk about George W. Bush, but I can’t cross the street to go to the deli without people stopping me to talk about John McCain. I haven’t seen this in a primary since Bobby Kennedy [in 1968] and Ronald Reagan [in 1980].”

Excitement is one thing; organization on primary day is another. And it is on the latter score that many Republicans believe the contest will be settled. “Republican primaries are conservative orgies–it’s always been so, and McCain is not conservative,” said one state Republican insider. “He doesn’t believe in tax cuts, and tax cuts are the No. 1 issue for conservatives.”

A Rocky Road?

Despite that, environmental attorney Laurance Rockefeller, whose 1996 lawsuit against the state G.O.P. began the ballot battle that culminated in the McCain victory on Feb. 4, thinks Mr. McCain’s reform message will appeal to New York Republicans. And it was Mr. Rockefeller who contacted Mr. Molinari in early December to put him in touch with Richard Emery and Burt Neuborne, the attorneys who filed Mr. Rockefeller’s lawsuit and who won it for Mr. McCain this year.

“The [ballot battle] helped him a lot,” Mr. Rockefeller said of Mr. McCain. “The resentment of Bush’s role, the attempts to rig this primary and appreciation for McCain’s leadership in standing up to that, the momentum he has coming out of New Hampshire, all of this helps him. In New York, it usually would be the most conservative person who would be voting, but this time it’s different, and his appeal in New Hampshire included conservatives.”

Mr. Rockefeller said he is considering mailing a letter to 50,000 environmentalist Republicans to “note how Governor Bush has one of the worst environmental records of any Governor.”

Be that as it may, all of this may be ancillary to the battle Mr. McCain has already won in New York. From a struggle to stay alive, the effort to get on the New York ballot became a major boost to Mr. McCain’s strategy nationally. Mr. McCain couldn’t have bought that kind of attention, even if he had the money.

“Organization means a lot in a primary, because voters don’t generally focus on primaries,” said Representative King. “But McCain got incredible free media time [for his ballot struggle], and the type of people who vote in primaries watch the news shows. I think he could win here, at least walk away with quite a few delegates.”