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Published: Monday, 11/6/2000

McCain backers mull their second choice

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

HEATH, O. - Ohioan David Ford and U.S. Sen. John McCain share more than Republican political beliefs.

Both men survived their warplanes being shot down during the Vietnam War. From 1967 to 1973, they were prisoners of war in North Vietnam.

Mr. Ford was tortured but he said he did not suffer as much pain as Mr. McCain, a Navy pilot and the son of a Navy admiral, who was tortured after refusing to be released early.

Mr. Ford first learned of Mr. McCain when he and other POWs tapped messages on their cell walls. The last few months, they lived in the same building in Hanoi.

“He was a clown like all of us. It was the way we survived,” said Mr. Ford, a 65-year-old retiree who lives in Heath, O., about 35 miles east of Columbus.

Mr. Ford and Mr. McCain, now a U.S. senator from Arizona, have kept in touch since their release.

When Mr. McCain's presidential campaign called last year, Mr. Ford jumped into his first political battle, organizing McCain backers for the Ohio primary in March.

And when Mr. McCain dropped out of the race after Texas Gov. George W. Bush racked up several victories on Super Tuesday, Mr. Ford dropped politics.

“I will hold my nose and vote for Bush. It is the lesser of two evils,” Mr. Ford said recently.

As the marathon presidential race reaches a crescendo tomorrow, a follow-up to one of the hottest political stories of the year is receiving little attention.

What has happened to the McCain voters - that blend of Republicans, independents, and conservative Democrats - who gave George W. Bush the fight of his life during the primaries. Will they vote tomorrow and if so, who will they support?

Political experts in Ohio and Michigan said they are not aware of any effort to measure what effect McCain backers could have on the election.

In Michigan, where Mr. McCain won February's primary with a large crossover vote from Democrats, pollster Ed Sarpolis has a hunch.

“If they're Republican, they're voting Republican. If they're independent or leaning Democratic, they're sticking with [Vice President] Gore. They were voting for McCain the man, not the party or the issues,” he said.

Curt Steiner, a GOP consultant who has advised Mr. McCain, said he expects a big chunk of the McCain voters in Ohio will back Mr. Bush, who won Ohio's March primary over Mr. McCain by a 58-37 per cent margin.

“My sense is that many of them will not be enthusiastic, but at the end of the day they will figure that George Bush is `newer' than Al Gore and more likely to change things in Washington,” Mr. Steiner said.

But Donald N. Saul, a Sylvania resident who was a lifelong Republican until six years ago, will not be among them.

A retired telephone company executive, Mr. Saul shares Mr. McCain's views that “pork-barrel politics” dominate Congress and religious right leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are “too controlling” in the GOP.

Mr. Saul, 66, said he was disappointed that Mr. McCain did not wage an independent or third-party campaign against Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore. “I will vote for Gore. To me, Bush is an empty suit. Gore is smarter,” he said.

Bill Toeppe, a retired railroad engineer who lives in West Toledo, dropped out of the Democratic voting ranks this year to back Mr. McCain.

Mr. Toeppe, 63, said Mr. McCain's campaign appearances with Mr. Bush in key battleground states such as Michigan and California had no influence on his decision. He recently filled out a ballot for Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate for president.

“Like McCain, Nader is a good, honest man with good ideas. I think Gore has suffered from [President] Clinton's extracurricular activities. I don't think Bush has the experience or the qualifications. I don't like his smirk,” he said.

Polls have shown Mr. Bush with a lead over Mr. Gore throughout this year in Ohio. That could reflect that many McCain supporters are staying with a Republican, said John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron.

Mr. Gore has tried to court McCain voters by pledging that the first bill he signs as president would be the overhaul of campaign finance laws that Mr. McCain and U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin have pushed.

But Mr. Gore's effort has not connected, in part because Mr. Bush's campaign has reminded voters that Mr. Gore attended a fund-raiser in 1996 at a Buddhist temple in California that netted $100,000 for the Clinton-Gore re-election drive.

“Even though Gore's position on campaign finance reform is coherent, he is not the best messenger,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College near Los Angeles. “Apart from campaign-finance reform, the differences between Bush and McCain are not all that great.”

If Mr. Bush loses tomorrow, Mr. Ford said Mr. McCain will be the GOP frontrunner for 2004, as long as he is healthy. Mr. McCain last August was diagnosed with a second bout of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

“Right now, it's all Bush and Gore and not McCain. To me it says, `Hey, here is a man who tried to get the nomination and would not pull a Pat Buchanan now or ever,'” said Mr. Ford, referring to the former Republican presidential candidate who snared the Reform Party's endorsement this year. “John's honor and integrity are beyond reproach.”



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