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Arizona Sen. John McCain will be on the ballot in the state's March 7 Republican presidential primary after two Democratic members of the four-member state Board of Elections this morning refused to go along with Republican attempts to throw the presidential candidate off.

Although McCain did not have enough valid signatures to get on the ballot in eight upstate congressional districts, the Democrats said it would be unfair to keep a widely recognized presidential candidate off the New York ballot. McCain is on all the other 49 state ballots.

The board's action means Republicans in most of New York will -- pending court appeals by the GOP -- be able to choose someone other than the candidate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who is being backed by Gov. George E. Pataki and the state GOP. Top Republican forces, including Pataki, were behind the attempt to stop McCain from getting on half the state's 31 congressional ballots.

The Elections Board's decision -- voted against by the two Republican board members -- keeps McCain on the ballot in the 27th Congressional District, which is represented by Rep. Thomas Reynolds and stretches from Erie to Monroe counties. He also is on in the 29th District, which includes parts of Erie and Niagara counties and is represented by Rep. John LaFalce, and the 31st, which stretches along the Southern Tier and is represented by Rep. Amo Houghton. The board's action, however, does not put McCain onto the ballot in Erie County's 30th Congressional District, which is represented by Rep. Jack Quinn. McCain's camp failed to file any petitions to get him on the district there.

Republican officials could not be reached to comment this morning, but the party's lawyers were heading to state court in Albany this afternoon to try to get the Elections Board's ruling overturned.

State Sen. Martin Connor, a Brooklyn Democrat and an election lawyer, dismissed speculation that the two Democratic
board members merely voted as they did to throw a wrench into the state GOP's attempt to anoint Bush with a primary victory. McCain is leading in polls for the New Hampshire primary next week, and New York, with an earlier-than-usual primary this year, could find itself as a major player for the Bush and McCain campaigns.

"From a policy standpoint, it's good they left a substantial presidential candidate on the ballot," Connor said.

The two Republican Elections Board members were outraged by the surprise and unusual move by the Democrats on a panel where the two parties normally just rubber-stamp each other's decisions. They said the election law clearly keeps candidates off ballots if they don't obtain the required signatures from registered Republicans.

"It's not up to us to legislate the law and how it is written," said board member Helena Donohue.

But the Democratic board member, who served only last week as the hearing officer on the case and invalidated hundreds of signatures submitted by the McCain campaign, said McCain made a good-faith effort to get on the state's ballots.

"Our citizens have a right to the same opportunities as the other 49 states," she said.

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