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Bradley, McCain Fight for Life By RON FOURNIER, AP Political Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Fighting to stay alive, Republican John McCain on Sunday questioned whether George W. Bush is ''ready for prime time'' and Democrat Bill Bradley suggested that voters can ''barely tolerate'' Al Gore, as the presidential nomination races head for a climactic multistate showdown Tuesday.

''A happy life,'' McCain replied, when asked what was in store if he fared poorly.

The two underdogs expressed confidence as they made the TV talk show rounds, even as aides braced for the worst by quietly making plans for dignified exits. Bradley advisers acknowledged he has little chance of loosening the vice president's grip on every ''Super Tuesday'' state. The McCain team held out hope for an election night surprise.

Despite months of acrimony, McCain ruled out running as a third-party candidate, and both underdogs said they could support their rivals in defeat. McCain, stung by negative ads, qualified his pledge to back the GOP nominee if it is Bush: ''I expect Governor Bush to change. I expect him to run an entirely different campaign than the kind that he's run in this primary.''

Republicans compete Tuesday in 13 states for 613 delegates, and Democrats battle in 15 states for 1,315 delegates -- more than half the total each party requires of its nominees. Spanning from Maine to California, the contests amounted to the closest the country has ever come to a national primary.

While Bradley is foundering across the board, McCain is doing well in New England but is threatened by the Texas governor everywhere else:

-- New York is close, with new polls giving Bush an edge.

-- Bush holds a yawning lead over McCain among California Republicans, who award 162 delegates in the winner-take-all primary. The Arizona senator could still win the state's nonbinding popular vote, which would give him shaky platform to argue he is the better general election candidate.

-- Bush holds wide leads in Georgia, Missouri and Ohio.

Their battleground shrinking, McCain advisers believe he must win New York, Ohio, all of New England and the nonbinding popular vote in California to stay in the race. Campaign manager Rick Davis called Ohio ''the sleeper story,'' because McCain must overcome a 25-point deficit in the polls to make his long-shot scenario a reality.

Campaigning in New York and Ohio, McCain unleashed a scathing indictment of Bush's environmental record in Texas, as well as his presidential campaign tactics.

''They're getting more and more like the Clinton campaign,'' McCain said in Cleveland, comparing the 1996 Clinton administration fund-raising scandal to a $2.5 million ad campaign financed by Bush supporters Sam and Charles Wyly.

Gore joined McCain in railing against new television ads, which criticize McCain's environmental record in the Senate.

''If Governor Bush defeats John McCain in some of these contests on Tuesday, this will raise serious questions about whether he did so fair and square,'' Gore said during a speech in Cranston, R.I.

''We knew that Governor Bush was in the hip pocket of the special interests. Now we find out what a deep pocket that is,'' Gore said.

The Texas governor denied involvement in the ad campaign, but refused to ask his allies to pull the ads, saying, ''That's what free speech is all about.'' His spokesman, Karen Hughes, said Gore's accusations had a ''ring of hypocrisy,'' given his fund-raising record.

Bush is running ads in New York state questioning McCain's commitment to fighting breast cancer. McCain's sister suffers from the disease, and Bush said last week that is ''all the more reason to remind'' McCain of his record.

''I wonder if someone who would treat a situation like that is ready for prime time,'' McCain said Sunday, his eyes narrowing as he shrugged his shoulders.

He compared Bush to Steve Forbes, who picked apart Bob Dole's Senate record in the 1996 GOP primary.

''This kind of negative attack just shows that Bush wants to win in the worst way,'' said McCain, who appeared on CBS's ''Face the Nation'' and NBC's ''Meet the Press.''

Bush, who appeared on CBS and ABC's ''This Week,'' said McCain's position on breast cancer is documented on his Internet site.

Bradley was less critical of his rival than McCain, but passed up a chance to say Gore was honorable. ''I think he distorted the record,'' he said. ''I had hoped that we could get to an election where people could be choosing between two politicians they esteem as opposed to one they can barely tolerate.''

Gore acknowledged easing up on Bradley, if not dropping him altogether from his stump speeches. But the vice president said that didn't mean he assumes he has locked up the nomination.

Two Bradley advisers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said aides have begun discussing among themselves possible settings and themes of a speech announcing his departure from the race. The advisers, who had not talked to Bradley personally, said he was aware that his chances were slim and wanted to be ready with dignified exit.

McCain plans to campaign Wednesday in Colorado, regardless of Tuesday's outcome, but Thursday has been set aside as ''a day of assessment,'' said a senior adviser. McCain's entire senior leadership has joined the traveling entourage in preparation for meetings expected after Tuesday. Without California's delegates, which McCain no longer expects to win, the discussions will almost certainly include recommendations that he depart the race, according to several advisers.

-- (bigmouth@also.helpingthenews), March 05, 2000

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