Republican presidential hopeful John McCain on Friday found himself added back onto the ballot of one congressional district in Western New York, but that was about it for the Arizona senator in his uphill battle with state Republican leaders to get on New York ballots for the March 7 presidential primary.
A hearing by a state election board commissioner Friday resulted in McCain being kept on the ballot in the 31st Congressional District, which is represented by Amo Houghton and includes Allegany, Chautauqua and Chemung counties.
But, barring an order from a federal judge in a pending lawsuit by McCain over what he claims is the state's unconstitutional ballot access laws, his supporters will not be able to vote for his candidacy in any of the other three districts. McCain's attempts to get on New York ballots are being thwarted by Gov. George E. Pataki and Republican Party leaders, who are all backing Texas Gov. George W. Bush. They are trying to bounce McCain off half the state's ballots, which would make it impossible for McCain to run a real race in the state.
Steve Forbes, who spent $1.5 million four years ago in the same ballot battle against the state GOP as McCain is facing now, will join Bush on the ballot March 7.
McCain supporters have charged the state Republicans with using Kremlin-like tactics to protect Bush, who some Republicans say could find himself vulnerable in New York if McCain does well in the nation's first primary -- New Hampshire -- in two weeks. New York's primary is much earlier this year than it has ever been, making the state a potential player in the GOP primary.
While Pataki and state GOP Chairman William Powers have defended the move to stop McCain, some Republicans, including New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, have sharply criticized the affair as an unfair maneuver to keep Bush's most serious challenger at a distance. Giuliani's complaints come despite his support for Bush.
Government watchdog groups on Friday also called for an end to the political tussle.
"The voters of New York State should not be deprived of the opportunity to vote for the presidential candidate of their choice because of the state's arcane and anti-democratic ballot access laws," Common Cause President Scott Harshbarger said.
To get on the ballot, McCain needed to collect signatures from at least 1/2 of 1 percent of Republican enrollees in the state's 31 congressional districts, or about 25,000 statewide.
At the heart of the McCain protest is the state's ballot-access laws, which reform groups have long criticized as the nation's worst at letting challengers, who don't have the deep pockets or organizational backing of party-backed candidates, onto the ballots.
Lawyers for McCain, while acknowledging not enough petition signatures were collected to get McCain on all the state's ballots, insist a good-faith effort was made and that the signatures gathered prove there is enough support to qualify McCain.
"In spite of that, Sen. McCain may not appear on ballots in half the state and we believe that is an unconstitutional burden upon the fundamental rights of ballot access," said Henry T. Berger, an election lawyer for McCain.
But Jeffrey Buley, a lawyer for the state GOP, said the law is straightforward and far from burdensome for a national candidate who claims a sizable backing as does McCain.
"The law is the law," he said.