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THEY BEAT HER. George W. Bush and George Pataki and his Republican cronies in party machines across the state beat Lynn DeYoung. They took her hope and her work and crushed it like a bug under their collective heel.

They think they took down John McCain, which is the bigger story and what they wanted. But they really beat Lynn DeYoung and people like her. Which, come to think of it, is all of us.

In case you hadn't heard, McCain -- who's giving big-money choice Bush a decent run for the Republican presidential nomination -- will not be appearing on a primary ballot near you.

McCain, the Arizona senator who spent five years as a North Vietnamese POW, is running for president in 49 states. The other state is New York, where democracy is a pilot project.

Thanks to rules made by party machines to close the door to "outsiders," more than half the state's Republicans -- including most in Western New York -- won't see McCain's name in the voting booth.

Candidates had a month to get hundreds of petition signatures in each of 31 congressional districts. For anybody but front-runner Bush, who as party favorite inherited an army of petition-carrying ground troops, or multimillionaire Steve Forbes, who basically bought his way in, it's like trying to build a haystack out of needles.

Lynn DeYoung tried anyway. She's co-coordinator for McCain in the 29th Congressional District, which runs from Buffalo to Rochester. DeYoung was a nurse during the Vietnam War, working the Air Evac unit at Fort Dix, N.J. She took care of soldiers coming back from Vietnam, the ones who left body parts behind.

"We'd have two flights a day coming in, all amputees," she said. "Usually an arm or a leg. Sometimes all extremities."

I wasn't a big fan of the Vietnam War, but in concept we sent troops there -- McCain among them -- to give people the same choices we get in this country. Everywhere except New York, anyway.

DeYoung never worked for a candidate before. But she liked McCain's straight way of talking and ex-soldier's integrity. She called his headquarters and just before Christmas got a stack of petitions in the mail. Because a bad heart slows her down in cold weather, she mostly stood in supermarket doorways and asked people to sign, until store workers told her to move on.

"They have rules against soliciting. I kept having to change places," said DeYoung, who lives near Rochester. "Sometimes I ended up physically crying, because there was so much to do and so little time."

DeYoung and a half-dozen other McCain volunteers got 595 signatures. They were 32 shy of getting McCain on the ballot in the 29th, even before Pataki's people carved up the petitions. In New York, you can cross names off petitions for piddling reasons, like if somebody signs Jenny and her real name is Jennifer. It's not Buffalo, it's Beijing West.

Which is fine with Bush and Pataki and the rest of them. Shame isn't much of a commodity in politics. Whether you're on the campaign trail in Iowa or in the governor's mansion in Albany, it's easy to slap a concerned look on your face and say it's too bad about McCain, but rules are rules. Heh heh heh.

McCain is on the ballot in every other state. In New Hampshire, where he might win next week, you get on the ballot for $500 and a smile. Jimmy Griffin, our ex-mayor, ran for president in New Hampshire. Only nine states other than New York even ask for petition signatures, and it's a low bar in every one. It's a brick wall in New Russia, uh, York.

"Nothing remotely compares to what you have to go through in New York," Craig Turk, chief counsel for the McCain campaign, said by phone from Arizona. "It's insanity. The sad thing is, you're just trying to give people a choice."

McCain, who made the ballot in less than half the state, is suing to change New York's closed-door system. Nobody is holding his breath.

Pataki and his pals say too bad, that's how the game is played. But it ain't no game. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died under the flag of freedom in a century's worth of wars. Part of that freedom is the right to choose who we want to lead us, instead of being force-fed a tyrant or herded to a coronation.

Lynn DeYoung took care of soldiers who gave a body part for a cause. She saw the fear and pain in their eyes. She tried to tell them it was worth it, it was not in vain.

On March 7, she will walk into a voting booth and not see John McCain's name.

Welcome to the gulag.

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