For McCain, It's California or Bust

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On Tuesday, Virginia GOP heavyweights Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell gathered their flock about them, joined hands and smote John McCain. Thanks in large part to the support of the Christian conservative voting bloc, George W. Bush chalked up a nine-point victory in Virginia's Republican primary, securing all 56 of the state's delegates. Although Bush's margin in Virginia was somewhat smaller than what aides had hoped for, the campaign's good spirits were reinforced by substantial triumphs in North Dakota and Washington State, where the Texas governor scored among Republicans but lost the non-binding independent vote to McCain. "This is a big win for Bush," says TIME political correspondent John Dickerson, "if for no other reason than it helps him psychologically."

But while the McCain camp will take these losses seriously, they're not exactly pulling up stakes. As McCain aides are quick to point out, while the loss in Washington is disappointing, a victory for Bush among religious conservatives in Virginia — mirroring the trend in South Carolina's primary — could be spun into an advantage for McCain. The exit polls in Virginia may support that theory; they showed the same trend demonstrated so tellingly in South Carolina. Bush pulled in strong numbers among voters self-identified as members of the religious right, and among conservative Republicans in general. McCain, on the other hand, grabbed a hefty vote among independents and Democrats. This divide will surely feed the fire already raging between the GOP candidates (and throughout the Republican party at large): Whom should the party support? Bush, the establishment candidate who has played with great success to the conservative wing of the party, or McCain, who has ignited a firestorm of support among the ranks of Democrats and independents, and who may have a better chance of beating Al Gore in November? (Gore, meanwhile, handily trounced Bill Bradley in a non-binding contest in Washington, leading to calls for Bradley's withdrawal from the race.)

While it looks more and more like the party faithful will prevail in a Bush victory on Super Tuesday — where most of the primaries are reserved for registered Republicans — McCain's supporters insist that next Tuesday's mega-primaries (including California, the ultimate trophy) will be a much more germane indicator of nationwide trends than the events in Virginia, or even Washington. "The McCain people are chalking up Tuesday as nothing to worry about," says Dickerson. But while it is clear that McCain maintains a staggering degree of popularity among nontraditional GOP voters, he may be fighting a losing battle against the pure arithmetic of delegate selection. Since McCain's supporters tend not to be registered with the GOP, Bush could easily triumph in multiple Republican-only, winner-take-all states, bagging all the delegates he needs. In the meantime, the Texas governor should take note of the electorate's weary attitude toward the increasingly nasty Republican campaign. Bush benefactors Falwell and Robertson might instruct him in a passage from Colossians: "But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language from your lips."