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McCain and Bush Make Last Pitches to Michigan’s Voters

By Lois Romano and Terry M. Neal

John McCain pummeled George W. Bush Monday while the Republican establishment and anti-abortion forces worked feverishly to defeat the Arizona senator.

McCain, badly needing a victory in Michigan’s primary on Tuesday, used some of his strongest language to date to describe the Texas governor’s campaign. “Reject this negative campaigning. Reject this character assassination,” he pleaded with voters at a huge morning town meeting in Traverse City.

McCain was joined at his stops by state Sen. Joe Schwarz, who told audiences he was the only member of his party in the legislature to break ranks and join the Arizona senator. It was a point not lost on the candidate, who aggressively attempted to reclaim his mantle as the reformer and the outsider fighting the establishment.

“You saw ‘Star Wars,’ right? I’m just like Luke Skywalker trying to get out of the Death Star,” McCain told his audience at Heritage High School in Saginaw. “They’re shooting at me from everywhere. Everybody’s against me. (Michigan) Governor (John) Engler, Governor Bush, all the governors, all the senators. But we’re going to kill ’em ... we’re going to win this election.”

Clearly still bitter over the onslaught of negative attacks against him in South Carolina, McCain said that while he was keeping his pledge to run a positive campaign in Michigan, Bush was continuing his negative tactics. “You deserve better than the trash that’s on television and radio,” he said here.

McCain’s campaign is echoing that message in recorded phone calls to voters: “The media reports that the Bush campaign has engaged in a win-at-all costs campaign in South Carolina and here in Michigan. George Bush is already running a negative campaign on television. ... Don’t be fooled by George Bush’s negative smear campaign. ... Vote against negative smear politics.

In the final hours before the primary, Bush and McCain campaigned across the state at packed and enthusiastic rallies, hitting the major media markets, hoping to energize turnout.

While Michigan is not as favorable for McCain as New Hampshire, his advisers see the state as far more hospitable than South Carolina. They say the GOP electorate here is more economically conservative and has fewer of the religious and social conservatives who were so overwhelming for Bush on Saturday. They also contend that given the short amount of campaigning time in Michigan that they will not be heavily outspent by the Bush campaign and it various allies on the right.

Even though polls show the race too close to call, Bush exuded confidence. “There is a level of intensity amongst our voters that is palpable. I can see it. I can hear it,” he said at a morning news conference in Detroit. The Bush camp believes that its political machine and the boost from South Carolina will carry the Texas governor to victory.

But just as in New Hampshire and in South Carolina, Democrats and independents can vote in the Michigan GOP primary, and Bush sought to motivate Republican voters, saying he had been warned that Democrats have announced their intention to come into the Republican primary system to punish him.