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2000 campaign stirs memories of 1968

This Republican campaign stirs echoes of the Democratic race of 1968. Parallels are strained by changes in the process, but semblance remains.

In '68, anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy electrified the country with a popular movement that stunned the establishment. People still talk about it -- how McCarthy rose from the grass roots, how Lyndon Johnson read the winds and decided not to run, how Bobby Kennedy seized on McCarthy's theme before being gunned down.McCarthy. Kennedy. It's almost an afterthought: When all was said and done, Vice President Hubert Humphrey took the nomination.

In hindsight, no one should have been surprised, just as they shouldn't be surprised about the now-clear outcome of this year's GOP race. The machine willed it.

While everyone was talking of John McCain, while his poll numbers commonly showed broad-based national popularity, the Bush campaign had the machine -- governors (including Arizona's), congressmen, party chieftains, the evangelical right.

The money -- that too. That money, which at first made things look too easy for Bush, almost made his campaign too difficult, scaring off contenders who might have split McCain's anti-establishment vote.

Unbelievably, their funds compromised by hand-to-hand battle with McCain, Bush's people were talking this week of the need for $10 million in quick cash.

McCain's supporters need no reminding, but they were hoping against a brutal reality: This isn't a popular election. That's in November. This is a partisan election.

Parallels with 1968? Back then, not every state had a primary, and many primaries were non-binding. Humphrey, who didn't announce his candidacy until April, decided not to enter the primaries.

Instead he worked his weight with party delegations while the other hopefuls slogged it out.

Hence, results like this: McCarthy won the non-binding Pennsylvania primary easily, yet after Humphrey romanced the Democratic Party regulars at the state convention, he had the support of two thirds of the delegates.

Back to the present: In the state of Washington on Feb. 29, Bush claimed what, aside from his South Carolina "firewall" victory, may have been his most crucial win. Among registered Republicans, he won by 20 percentage points.

But in the popular vote -- the nonbinding, open "beauty contest" -- the state was still counting absentee ballots Wednesday (they could be postmarked on election day), and McCain had closed within only 3,577 votes, with more to count. Indeed, McCain still has a chance of winning that vote.

In 1968, Humphrey disdained the primaries and played the back room to his ultimate benefit. Bush has played the back room like few candidates since. He had to sweat out primaries, yes. But because of his early backing and strong party identity, he will sweat no more for the nomination.

In '68 Humphrey said, "The nomination will not be decided by the primaries, even though primaries will be important psychologically."

He was right.

John Young is opinion page editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald. E-mail: jyoung@wacotrib.com