Bush Bash

In a bitterly fought primary that the state Republican Party had tried to avoid, Texas Governor George W. Bush captured the lion’s share of delegates in the New York primary on March 7, besting insurgent Arizona Senator John McCain and his band of insurgents.

At press time, Mr. Bush had captured 68 of the 100 delegates at stake in the primary. It seemed possible, however, that the popular vote would be a good deal closer than the delegate count. The primary was, in essence, a series of 31 local elections in each of the state’s congressional districts. Each district elected several delegates to the Republican National Convention in August.

The stakes on Primary Night were higher for Governor George Pataki than for Mr. Bush. The Texan could afford a loss in New York, considering that he had already won several Super Tuesday states, his lead in California seemed insurmountable in that giant, winner-take-all state, and he has enormous advantages as the primary schedule moves south. But Mr. Pataki’s credibility as a party leader was considered on the line in his support for Mr. Bush’s widely criticized campaign in New York.

By 10:30 P.M., Gov. Pataki was standing exultantly at the Women’s National Republican Club, grinning and claiming victory, tipping his hat to “Billy”–William Powers, the State Republican chairman whose prestige was on the line even more than Mr. Pataki’s. Standing nearby, his smile somewhat more wan than the Governor’s, was Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the putative Republican Senate candidate, who will have to depend on Gov. Bush’s drawing power in the state.

When Mayor Giuliani finally got hold of the microphone, he stood and gave a game imitation of ferocious Republicanism, exhorting the party to unite, attacking the Democratic Senate candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, laterally through a fierce assault on the Clinton-Gore Administration. “We have the chance of giving America a lot better future than we’ve had over the last eight years,” he said, and called for “real decency” under Gov. Bush. Mayor Giuliani also confidently predicted that his friend John McCain would be campaigning in New York for the Republican ticket.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Vice President Al Gore effectively clinched the nomination he first sought more than a decade ago as he scored a coast-to-coast Super Tuesday victory with the ease, if not the grace, of Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes. The Super Tuesday results put an end to the earnest insurgency of former Senator Bill Bradley, whose legendary sense of timing deserted him in the campaign his peers thought inevitable when he was growing up in Crystal City, Missouri, in the 1950′s.

Mr. Gore was able to give a staccato victory speech from Nashville at 9:15 P.M., just 15 minutes after the polls closed in New York. By then, he had won eight of the 13 states–including Mr. Bradley’s native state of Missouri–competing in the Super Tuesday sweepstakes. He challenged his eventual Republican opponent to match him in a voluntary campaign finance reform effort in the fall.

In his concession speech, given shortly after Mr. Gore’s victory speech, Mr. Bradley virtually conceded the nomination to Mr. Gore. He called his campaign “truly a joyous journey” that had given a “voice to the voiceless.”

“I’ve always believed that politics is a way to know something collectively that we can never know personally,” Mr. Bradley, ever the philosopher, said.

There was precious little opportunity to wax eloquent about the political system at Bush headquarters at the Women’s National Republican Club in midtown. Early in the night, the tension was evident in the room, although former Senator Alfonse D’Amato seemed more optimistic than the first returns seemed to warrant. As he arrived outside Bush headquarters just before 10 P.M., he said that “without Governor Pataki, there was no way George Bush could have won this state.” Mr. D’Amato was alone in his certainty that Mr. Bush had won. As Mr. D’Amato talked with the press outside the headquarters, Mr. Giuliani pulled up, and the press moved, lemming-like, from the former Senator to the current Mayor. “Are you talking about me, Al?” the Mayor said before disappearing into an elevator.

Senator McCain’s election-night headquarters was, ironically enough, the Roosevelt Hotel, where Manhattan’s Republican establishment gathers for its annual Lincoln Day dinners. In keeping with the Senator’s anti-slick campaign, the room had a threadbare look: A jazz trio played quietly while a few grizzled volunteers wandered about. There were a few handpainted signs, but there was little else to suggest that this was the headquarters of a major candidate for the nation’s highest office.

The End in Sight

When the candidate’s two top New York supporters, Representative Peter King of Long Island and Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari, arrived at about 8:15 P.M., they were overrun by reporters who had been waiting patiently for somebody worth interviewing. Standing several feet apart but separated by a portion of the national and local press corps, Mr. King and Mr. Molinari both sounded a bittersweet tune: They were confident about New York, at least at the moment, and clearly proud of their candidate, but the end was in sight.

Mr. Molinari, wearing a white turtleneck, used the language of healing in saying that “the most important thing is that we’re all Republicans,” a gesture to Bush supporters. “I don’t think Senator McCain could have done much better,” he said. “We had a great candidate, and the candidate energized the people.” It was impossible not to notice the use of the past tense.

Mr. King, for his part, seemed to be conducting a retrospective of the McCain insurgency. “I think McCain has done a favor for the Republican Party, even if he doesn’t win,” said Mr. King. “He’s done the party a lot of good.”

Georgette Mosbacher, the Manhattan businesswomen who heads Mr. McCain’s finance committee, grabbed a chair and stood on it for an interview with New York 1′s Kerri Lyon, who also was standing on a chair. “No matter which one of these white men is our candidate, the whole country will get behind him,” Ms. Mosbacher said. Later, she conceded to another reporter that she was feeling “a little disappointed.”

The mood at Bush headquarters was a bit less melancholy, though undeniably tense. Just before 8 P.M., Mr. Powers, the state Republican chairman, seemed anxious as he told reporters “we don’t know anything until nine o’clock [when the polls closed].” Some time later, Governor Pataki’s press spokesman, Michael McKeon, mingled nervously with reporters, asking what they has heard about turnout and exit polls. Mr. Pataki arrived just before 8:30 P.M., joined by his wife, Libby, and daughter, Emily, a student at Yale University, where Mr. Bush and Mr. Pataki were contemporaries in the 1960′s. The Governor said the New York primary was “not about my personal politics. This is about policy for the nation.” Yet there could be no denying that the Governor had a great deal on the line. In a sign of the divisions with the party, which have been excacerbated during the Bush campaign, Mr. Pataki’s putative ally, State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, monitored the returns not in Manhattan, but in Albany.

Plans Gone Awry

Back in May, Gov. George Pataki built up such a frenzy of speculation about a “major announcement”–would he be running for President? Senate?–that 23 cameras showed up in a ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel to record the rather mundane spectacle of Mr. Pataki becoming the 16th Republican governor to endorse Mr. Bush for President.

After the announcement, a reporter was marveling at the way Mr. Pataki and his allies had managed the event. “Pretty smart of us, wasn’t it?” one of Mr. Pataki’s top aides said with an impish grin.

That was the last smart thing the Bush-Pataki team did in New York.

There was, of course, the ballot battle. For as long as anyone can remember, the party leadership has won party primaries for its chosen candidates by preventing them from happening in the first place. So in December, as the dreaded petitioning process drew near, state Republican Party chairman William Powers sent out a memo admonishing Mr. Bush’s district coordinators: “To ensure that Bush delegates get on the ballot in your Congressional district, your goal is to collect six times the signatures required by the election law.”

That was code. It meant that the election law requirements were so strict that just gathering signatures wasn’t enough–you had to make sure the petitions could survive the legal challenges that were sure to ensue. And they were sure to ensue because the Bush campaign was planning them itself.

But Mr. Powers, Mr. Pataki and Mr. Bush were outmaneuvered by John McCain and his New York chair, Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari. In early December, Mr. McCain joined Mr. Molinari and their new best friends, the legal team of Richard Emery and New York University’s Burt Neuborne, who had successfully sued to get Steve Forbes on the ballot on New York in 1996, to announce there would be a McCain lawsuit this time around.

The state Republican leaders didn’t view the lawsuit as potentially troublesome. After all, they had been sued before, by Mr. Forbes, and they were no worse for it. What they didn’t realize, incredibly, was that John McCain was not Steve Forbes. The New Jersey publisher was an eccentric sideshow in 1996. But Mr. McCain was an insurgent whom the media loved, a war hero, and a far more sympathetic character than Mr. Forbes was. When the Republican Party began its petition challenge in early January, Mr. Bush’s Texas aides tried to deny responsibility, saying that Mr. Powers and Mr. Pataki came up with the block-McCain effort on their own, even though, Republican sources said, the orders came directly from Mr. Bush’s national headquarters in Austin, Tex.

Mr. McCain took to calling the Governor and the state party chair “Comrade Pataki” and “Comrade Powers” while campaigning in New Hampshire. On the advice of media strategist Mike Murphy, he veered off the trail in New Hampshire for a snowy press conference in front of the Russian Embassy in Manhattan to claim there was more democracy in Russia than in New York. The media ate it up.

Then there was the Federal court case. Even before the New Hampshire primary, a Federal judge lambasted the G.O.P.’s ballot rules, saying they rendered the primary process here “meaningless.” But Mr. Pataki and Mr. Powers–and their lawyer, the able Lawrence Mandelker–continued to make their argument that Mr. McCain knew the rules, hadn’t played by them, and was now trying to muscle his way in with a court battle. The day before the New Hampshire primary, top aides to Mr. Pataki were privately dismissing the long-term effects of the ballot battle, noting that the battle to keep Mr. Forbes off the ballot in ’96 hadn’t hurt the Governor.

Three days later, after overwhelming and unflattering media coverage, Mr. Pataki directed Mr. Powers to throw in the towel. Next day, a Federal judge ordered all remaining Republican candidates on the New York ballot, and declared the New York law unconstitutional.

By then, Mr. McCain had won New Hampshire by a nearly 20-point margin, and Mr. Bush, in a panic, began to race to the right to win South Carolina. The moderate from Texas who likes to talk about the support he got in his re-election campaign from Hispanics and women began courting the Christian right. But his biggest debacle–from New York’s perspective–was his now-famous appearance at Bob Jones University, a citadel of old-fashioned anti-Catholicism. Catholics account for nearly half the state’s registered Republicans, and most of the party’s top officials are Catholic. The controversy cost him 12 points in pre-election polls in New York, according to Lee Miringoff of the Marist College Institute of Public Opinion.

Meanwhile, Mr. Pataki, who likes to avoid confrontation where possible, wasn’t advising Mr. Bush. “He didn’t ask me if he should go,” Mr. Pataki told WNBC-TV correspondent Gabe Pressman about the Bob Jones speech. “If he did, I would have told him not to.”

But something Mr. Pataki could have been doing–organizing the ground troops for a get-out-the-vote operation, also got off to a laggardly start. The McCain campaign, a guerrilla operation, had a headquarters, phone banks and district-by-district volunteer meetings in place for months. The well-funded Bush campaign set up phone banks, rallies and literature drops just a week before the primary.

But the Bush campaign had a plan, as Mr. Bush likes to say. On March 1, at a press conference in Albany, Mr. Pataki began attacking Mr. McCain’s voting record. Looking confident and relaxed, the Governor said: “There’s an absolutely consistent pattern of voting against the interests of New York, whether it’s specific things like voting against aid for the ice storm recovery or the dairy compact, or generic things like the whole transit thing where he voted to cut us.”

At almost the same time, Representative John Sweeney, an upstate member of the state party’s brain trust, was staging his own press conference and reciting many of the same attacks. And the Bush campaign was releasing a radio ad, taped by Long Island breast cancer activist Geri Barish (who also happens to owe her job to the Nassau County Republican Party) attacking Senator McCain for voting against a funding bill that including breast cancer research projects at North Shore and New York University hospitals. Two days later, Mr. Bush himself showed up on Long Island, sporting an anti-breast-cancer pink ribbon, defending the ad.

Meanwhile, the Bush mailing machine was sending out fliers to targeted portions of the state, pointing out projects Mr. McCain had opposed. It was a variation on a tactic the Pataki team used in 1998 to attack senatorial candidate Charles Schumer for supposedly putting the interests of Mongolians over people in upstate New York.

But the big guns were being loaded in Texas, where Sam Wyly, a businessman who is a major Bush fund-raiser, was preparing an ad attacking Senator McCain on the environment and praising Mr. Bush. The ad was produced by Rob Allyn, a media man who worked for Mr. Bush in his 1994 campaign for Governor and has since worked for many Texas Republican causes, and placed by Tony Fabrizio’s Virginia firm. Mr. Fabrizio, a protégé of Pataki media guru Arthur Finkelstein, places all the ads for Governor Pataki and the state party.

The Sierra Club cried foul, saying Mr. Bush has the worst environmental record any governor in the nation. Though environmentalists don’t much like Mr. McCain either, they at least give the Arizonan some credit for protecting national parks.

And Mr. McCain filed a complaint with the F.E.C., saying the ads violated the spirit of campaign finance laws. He began talking about “dirty money” and Mr. Bush’s “sleazy Texas cronies.”

In a testy face-off with reporters at the State University of New York campus in Stony Brook, L.I., on March 3, Mr. Bush defended the ads while also insisting he knew nothing about their creation. But they were certainly helping him. Mr. McCain, who had been rising steadily in the polls, saw his numbers begin to dip.

Meanwhile, Mr. Pataki trailed Governor Bush around the state from airport rally to airport rally. Mr. Pataki, who is not known for his fondness for the labors of governing, adores campaigning. Pink dots of color were on his face in every appearance. If the Bush campaign had been disastrous before it got to New York, you couldn’t see it on his classic “What, me worry?” face.

Mr. Pataki’s aides, flying around with him, appeared completely calm, happy even. This was their territory. Zenia Mucha, Mr. Pataki’s communications director, had been in the attack zone in many elections. A former aide to Alfonse D’Amato, she had worked on the successful campaigns against Robert Abrams in 1992 (“hopelessly liberal”) and Mario Cuomo (“too liberal for too long”). She seemed to be in her element.

She was asked if Mr. Pataki was taking a political risk in attacking Mr. McCain’s record. “The only risk is that people don’t know where John McCain stands,” she said. She really looked like she believed it.

Six hours later, on the Straight Talk Express in Syracuse, Mr. McCain was gloating about the ad campaign directed against him. “They were just a little bit too early with this, and people are going to resent it,” he said. Mr. Bush, according to Mr. McCain, had once again given him an issue that would heighten his insurgent reformer image. And it would remind voters of his increasingly popular campaign finance reform crusade.

But in the last Zogby tracking poll before the election, it was Mr. Bush’s numbers that were up in New York.

With additional reporting by Josh Benson, Kate Kelly, Andrew Rice and Greg Sargent.