This isn't the first time that McCain has pulled this bait and switch trick and ducked out of presidential debates at the last minute when his poll numbers are going down.
McCain Backs Out of Debate In California
Bush campaign claims senator is abandoning state
Carla Marinucci, John Wildermuth, Chronicle Political Writers
Monday, February 28, 2000
With new polls showing his campaign dead in the water among California Republicans, Arizona Sen. John McCain has pulled out of a long-scheduled debate with Texas Gov. George Bush, set for Thursday in Los Angeles.
McCain campaign officials tried desperately yesterday to put the best face on their withdrawal, even as a new Field Poll showed Bush far ahead among likely Republican voters in the winner-take-all race for the state's 162 GOP delegates.
Top campaign officials attributed McCain's decision to Bush's earlier reluctance to appear at the debate.
``We had agreed to do this debate a long time ago, and Gov. Bush said he wasn't going to do it,'' McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky said yesterday. ``We aren't going to hold our schedule together forever.''
But Opinsky said McCain will debate Bush on NBC's ``Meet the Press'' Sunday, a national TV show that will reach millions of Americans.
Still, just last week, the McCain campaign was openly derisive of Bush's reluctance to commit to a California debate -- and promised its own candidate would be there.
``John McCain believes it's important for the people of California to see and hear the candidates talk about the issues,'' McCain communications director Dan Schnur told The Chronicle last week. ``Thirty- three million Californians are worth that attention . . . and we'll be there, either way.''
As recently as Thursday, when he was in California, McCain was talking about his plans to debate Bush; even last night, McCain's own Web site listed his California debate- watching parties. The CNN-Los Angeles Times debate was the only scheduled head-to-head meeting of the two candidates in California before the primary, a week from tomorrow.
McCain's campaign said the candidate confirmed to CNN on Thursday that he would not appear. But until yesterday afternoon, when rumors swirled about the pullout, McCain -- who has touted his ``straight talk'' politics -- gave no public indication that he intended to duck the nationally televised showdown.
The bait and switch on the debate left the Arizona senator -- whose favorite campaign line is ``I'll always tell you the truth'' -- wide open to blistering criticism from his rivals.
``Clearly, this is more double-talk from the McCain campaign,'' said Alixe Mattingly, a spokeswoman for Bush. ``Pulling out of this debate at the last minute is an indication that they're pulling out of California, where McCain's antagonistic message clearly isn't working.''
The decision to avoid debating Bush clearly upset some of McCain's top advisers.
``It's definitely a mistake, but hopefully, the people of California feel strongly enough about the McCain reform agenda . . . to overlook a staff error and come out and vote for John McCain,'' said Schnur, a longtime California political operative. ``John McCain is completely committed to California; unfortunately, our staff's position on this debate sends just the opposite message.''
California Republicans have been worried all along that the two leading GOP candidates are not giving the nation's most populous state the respect it deserves. Bush's campaign stop in Los Angeles last week, for example, was his first visit to the state since November.
Bush supporters quietly reveled in McCain's surprise announcement.
``From a distance, it seems like the `Straight Talk Express' is careening off the exit ramp in California,'' said Leslie Goodman, a Republican communications consultant and Bush backer, in a reference to McCain's campaign bus. ``They claimed they'd make California a priority because it was win or die, and now they don't care enough to debate.''
Although McCain's backers insisted that a devastating series of polls had no effect on the decision, the senator's chances of winning a Republicans-only primary in California have grown increasingly dim in recent days.
A Field Poll released today shows the state's Republicans backing Bush over McCain in the March 7 primary by a 48 percent to 28 percent margin in the contest for California's 162 convention delegates, a gap virtually unchanged from a Field Poll earlier this month. Other polls released over the weekend by the San Francisco Examiner and Time/CNN showed similar results.
Most of Bush's support comes from Republicans who identify themselves as strongly conservative. Among that group, Bush is favored by a 4-to-1 margin.
``That group seems galvanized and ready to vote for Bush,'' said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. ``It's going to be hard for McCain to break into that group.''
Ironically, the rest of the poll is nothing but good news for McCain, a war hero who, in California at least, has extended his appeal beyond Republican voters.
In the state's open primary, where voters can choose from among all the presidential candidates regardless of party, McCain has seen his support among all likely voters surge from 10 percent in January and 15 percent earlier this month to 20 percent today, just 2 percentage points behind Bush and 8 points back of Democratic front-runner Al Gore's 28 percent. Democratic former Sen. Bill Bradley trailed with 10 percent.
It is becoming increasingly likely that McCain could beat Bush among all California voters, yet badly lose the Republican-only count that will determine who receives all the state's national convention delegates.
The new poll also bolsters McCain's claim that he would be a stronger candidate than Bush in November. In a head-to-head matchup, McCain beats Gore among likely voters in California by 48 percent to 41 percent, while Gore overruns Bush 51 percent to 41 percent. Bush also loses to Bradley, 47 percent to 43 percent, while McCain crushes Bradley, 52 percent to 35 percent.
McCain also has the best image of the top four candidates, with 57 percent of likely voters viewing him favorably, compared to 26 percent with an unfavorable impression. The new poll shows that for the first time, Bush's unfavorable rating is higher than his favorable rating, with 51 percent viewing him negatively, compared to 41 percent with a favorable impression.
``Everything in the polls seems to be going in McCain's direction, except the one that counts the most, which is the contest for the (Republican) delegates,'' DiCamillo said.
On the Democratic side, the poll shows Gore staying far ahead of Bradley, 54 percent to 16 percent, among likely Democratic voters.
``All the attention on McCain is siphoning any type of insurgent campaign momentum away from Bradley,'' DiCamillo said. ``Gore seems to be running out the clock and is in a very good position to do that.''
The poll is based on a telephone survey of 1,447 registered California voters conducted from Tuesday to noon yesterday. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.2 percentage points for the entire poll, 4.5 percentage points for the Democrat- only figures and 5 percent for the Republican-only figures, based on the size of the sample.
The poll represents a snapshot of voter opinion at the time it was taken and is not meant to predict the outcome of the vote.