Republican Party leaders began Wednesday to repair the wounds left by the bruising nomination campaign as Democrats awaited the formal withdrawal of former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley that sealed the choice of Vice President Al Gore as their standard-bearer against Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Bush's challenger, Arizona Sen. John McCain, remained secluded at his Arizona ranch with family and staff, presumably weighing when and how to exit the race.
In the wake of Tuesday's sweep by Gore of all 15 Democratic contests and Bush's victory in the five biggest states -- California, New York, Ohio, Georgia and Missouri -- the focus shifted quickly to preparations for the general election campaign. There was plainly more nervousness in the GOP than among Democrats about healing the internal wounds. But Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who led McCain's effort in that state's bitter primary, said, ''The more Gore talks, the easier it is for us to get together.''
Bush told reporters in Austin he was looking forward to a race against Gore. ''If people are happy with the status quo in Washington,'' he said, ''then vote for Al Gore.'' He suggested Gore was hypocritical in calling for a ban on soft money contributions in the coming campaign, while President Clinton was out raising those unrestricted, six-figure contributions for the Democratic National Committee. ''That's an old ruse,'' Bush said, ''an attempt to divert the attention of America away from what's been going on in Washington, D.C., the last seven years.''
For his part, Gore commented in Nashville that he was stunned that Bush ''did not even mention health care'' in his victory speech Tuesday night. ''It may not be a priority for him,'' Gore said, ''but it is for me.''
While the prospective nominees were testing out their attack lines, others were beginning to prepare for the fall campaign. Joe Andrew, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said he had been on the phone with several state chairmen, but bragged, ''I don't have to be an emergency room physician today; there's no triage. The Republicans have a divided party; we don't.''
Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson said he had placed calls Wednesday to both Bush and McCain. ''I am very optimistic about the healing process,'' he said. ''This campaign has been good for our party. You saw independents and Democrats coming into the Republican primaries; you didn't see Republicans drawn to the Democrats.''
His optimism was not echoed by everyone in his party -- especially those who had backed McCain. Former senator Warren Rudman, R-N.H., said, ''I truly don't know what Bush can do to attract'' the voters who gave the Arizonan victories in New Hampshire and Michigan during February and helped him win four New England states on Tuesday, even as Bush was rolling up wins in nine other states that make him a prohibitive favorite for the nomination.
The latest Associated Press tabulation of delegates gave Bush a 617 to 231 lead over McCain, with former diplomat Alan Keyes at 12. Bush needs 1,034 for nomination, and primaries Friday in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming and next Tuesday in Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee could add 312 to Bush's total -- bringing him within 100 of victory.
Looking ahead to a general election race against a fellow baby boomer, Bush saidthe biggest hurdle would be ''convincing the American people that I've got the right judgment to be president.''
In an interview with The Associated Press, Bush said he would point out ''stark contrasts'' with Gore and try to convince voters that, ''I'm a good decision maker.''
''This is the full arrival of the baby boomer generation in American politics -- two baby boomer candidates,'' Bush said. ''Our generation will have a chance to lead and we'll show whether or not we've got the capability to do so, and if not there's another generation coming along.''
Sounding relaxed and subdued after widespread primary victories Tuesday night over GOP rival John McCain, Bush said it was too soon to design his strategy for the general election campaign.
''It's way too early to develop a thoughtful strategy,'' said Bush, who tried out rhetoric against Gore in his victory speech Tuesday night. ''You have to think it through a little more.''
As he sat in the bright yellow conservatory of the Texas governor's mansion, Bush savored the opportunity to vote for himself as president today in absentee balloting for his state's primary, and considered the campaign ahead.
''There's going to be some stark contrasts,'' Bush said. ''It's going to be great.''
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