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Pressure on Bradley From Other Side of Aisle

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Once, not long ago, John McCain was Bill Bradley’s ally in the fight for political reform. Today, McCain may be Bradley’s worst enemy as he fights for political survival.

Both candidates--one surging, the other stumbling--hope to emerge victorious in today’s Washington state balloting, gaining propulsion for an epic coast-to-coast vote that follows a week later. Virginia also holds a GOP primary today, and Republicans in North Dakota will attend statewide caucuses.

But it is here in the Pacific Northwest that the odd alignments of this quirky campaign season and its crossover craze have come most visibly into play.

Desperate for traction, Bradley drove his tattered standard into the rain-soaked ground, once staking his entire candidacy on beating fellow Democrat Al Gore in a purely symbolic contest, or at least finishing close. By Monday, however, he retreated and said he would continue his campaign regardless of the outcome.

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The problem Bradley faces is stiff competition in Washington’s open primary from Republican McCain, who appeals to the very same reform-minded, label-defying swing voters--and seems a far more viable candidate.

“If you’re standing there ready to flip a coin and one guy looks like he can win, the other like he’s going to lose . . . ,” said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), a Bradley backer, letting his thought trail off. “If I were Bradley, I’d be pulling my hair out.”

Instead, Bradley has been targeting McCain with increased resolve. In December, the two staged a summit to trumpet their shared passion for campaign finance reform. Beyond that, however, “John McCain and I don’t agree on much,” the former New Jersey senator told an audience gathered recently in Tacoma.

At later stops, Bradley expanded to cite their divergence concerning abortion, gun control, health care--even the fate of the region’s most famous fish. “When you [criticize] the effort to save the salmon as pork barrel, that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the environmental imperative,” Bradley said at a Seattle arts center overlooking Puget Sound.

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With its suddenly high profile, this soggy state is just the latest to test the limits of party loyalty and highlight the freelance voting that has scrambled just about every expectation this most unpredictable election year.

Washington will hold separate Democratic and Republican primaries. But there is no party registration, so voters are free to support whomever they please.

The only ballots that will count toward awarding Republican delegates are those cast by voters who take a loyalty oath--which is unenforceable and essentially meaningless. “It’s an honor system,” said Gary McIntosh, the state’s election chief.

The Democratic primary, also open to any voter, is a nonbinding popularity contest. Seventy-five delegates to the party’s nominating convention will be selected next Tuesday in caucuses, which are expected to draw much less attention.

The Republicans have 12 of 37 delegates at stake in today’s balloting, to be awarded in proportion to the statewide vote, with the rest chosen at caucuses next week.

But Washington voters have never seemed terribly concerned about party affiliations or, for that matter, overly impressed with establishment front-runners. This is a state that backed Republican Pat Robertson and Democrat Gary Hart in their insurgent bids and gave Ross Perot nearly a quarter of its vote in 1992.

It is also a state where voters are notoriously hard to figure. After going whole hog for the 1994 Republican revolution--the state’s congressional delegation went from 8-1 Democratic to 7-2 Republican overnight--passions soon waned. Democrats now enjoy a 5-4 edge in House seats.

Enter Bradley, whose candidacy has dramatically faded after his failure to win either of the two opening contests in Iowa or New Hampshire. He arrived in Washington on Wednesday and never left, campaigning more like a candidate for governor than for president. The hope is that a strong showing here will give him a boost heading into March 7, when more than a dozen states from New York to California hold primaries and caucuses in the biggest one-day voting binge ever.

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“It’s very much a longshot,” conceded Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, another of Bradley’s realist backers, as the candidate’s plane soared over the Cascade Mountains. But Bradley has few alternatives. “If he can’t win here,” said Stuart Elway, a veteran state poll-taker and neutral observer, “it’s hard to make a case he can win elsewhere.”

Campaigning from the lush Olympic Peninsula to the harsh plains of eastern Washington and the high-tech havens in between, Bradley portrayed himself as the one true Democrat in the race, standing up for tougher gun controls, stricter tobacco regulation and a woman’s unfettered right to have an abortion.

It is a message repeated in radio and TV advertisements and stops such as the one at a Seattle clinic, where Bradley touted his plan for universal health care and claimed Vice President Gore “abandoned the field . . . quit the fight” after Congress rejected the Clinton administration’s 1993 proposal.

But even before his sparse inner-city audience of 100 or so, Bradley felt compelled to take on the senator from Arizona--the guy running in the other party’s primary. “People so hunger for the truth these days that they’re willing to vote for someone like John McCain,” he said, “even though they don’t agree with him. He doesn’t even have a health care plan.”

And, in fact, like several in the crowd, Gary Clark is impressed with the GOP underdog, even though he knows little about McCain’s stand on the issues. “McCain looks like a leader to me,” said the 58-year-old construction worker, a lifelong Democrat.

With support from enough crossover voters such as Clark--who was still undecided between Bradley and McCain--and a big chunk of independents, McCain hopes for a Washington win today to offset anticipated victories by Texas Gov. George W. Bush in North Dakota and Virginia.

Neither front-runner, however, has ceded Washington.

After losing in Michigan and Arizona, Bush made a series of hastily scheduled appearances and ran a radio ad criticizing McCain for saying he would consider razing dams on the Snake River to protect endangered salmon. The dams generate hydroelectric power and provide water for irrigation in the southeast part of the state.

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Gore also made several last-minute appearances, touting the attention he has paid the region as vice president. “It’s seven years versus seven days,” he said of Bradley’s Washington encampment.

But for voters unimpressed with either front-runner, the more intriguing choice is between Bradley and McCain--and the question is how to have the greatest impact.

Richard Friedman, who runs charter boats to Alaska, showed up recently to hear Bradley speak at the cruise terminal in Bellingham. He brought along his son, A.J., who carried a copy of a Bradley biography for the candidate to sign.

Friedman, 49, raved about the kindness Bradley showed years ago when his family stopped by Bradley’s Senate office. But he likes McCain too, admiring his “integrity, honesty and humanity.”

“I’m sitting on the fence,” Friedman admitted. “If he’s just not going to get over the hump,” he said of Bradley, then McCain will probably get his vote. “I don’t want to throw it away. I want my vote to be a useful one.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

States Voting Today

North Dakota

Virginia

Washington

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North Dakota’s Latino population is 1%, Virginia’s is 3% and Washington’s is 4%. Latinos may be of any race, so their totals may overlap with white or black racial categories. Numbers may not add up to 100% because of rounding.

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Source: Almanac of American Politics, 2000

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Times staff writers Matea Gold and John Johnson contributed to this story.


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