GOP Candidates Shape Up for Super Tuesday

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George W. Bush and John McCain tried gamely in their last debate before Super Tuesday, taking carefully aimed shots at one another Thursday night on topics ranging from campaign finance reform to religious tolerance. In the end, however, it was a lackluster affair, as though both candidates wanted to make sure they didn't trip up at the final hurdle. "Ninety-five percent of debates only serve to reaffirm voters' preconceptions about their chosen candidate," says TIME political correspondent John Dickerson, "and this was one of those debates. Both McCain and Bush did fine: Bush did well on education, and McCain got his point across on foreign policy." Through the now-familiar exchanges, Alan Keyes stood to one side like an older sibling, shaking his head; at one point he turned to the camera with a bemused look and asked, "It's clear I'm the only true conservative running today. So why aren't you out there voting for me?" Keyes, of course, can afford to be direct — recent polls show the ultra-conservative candidate to be a distant also-ran.

That's not the case for either Bush or McCain, as they head into the fiercely contested Super Tuesday primaries. Next week, delegates from 12 states will be chosen, and both of the Republican contenders are hoping for big wins — albeit on very different terms — in California and New York. McCain has pretty much given up hope of winning the delegates in California; recent polls show him trailing Bush by a wide margin. But McCain can still take a major chunk of the popular vote, which he hopes would serve as a wake-up call to the GOP party establishment as they consider their options for November. McCain maintains that he is the most electable Republican candidate, and the polls bear him out, giving McCain a 24-point lead over a presumptive Gore campaign — while Bush has only a nine-point buffer zone between himself and the vice president. "A popular win in Califonia would be something of a moral victory for McCain," says TIME senior writer Nancy Gibbs. "It would reinforce what he's been saying all this time: You've got to vote for the guy who can beat Gore." Mathematically, of course, moral victories don't count for much. "It all comes down to who takes the most delegates," says Gibbs. "And even if McCain does wonderfully on Tuesday — the following week's primaries [the Bush-friendly Southern Tuesday] could kill his chances."