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A judge Thursday tossed Sen. John McCain off the March 7 primary ballot in about one-quarter of the state's congressional districts -- including some in Western New York -- just a day after a state Elections Board ruling placed the Arizona Republican back on the ballot in those districts.

State Supreme Court Justice Joseph R. Cannizzaro's decision is a legal victory for the state Republican Party and Gov. George E. Pataki, who launched the maneuver in an effort to guarantee a primary victory for their endorsed candidate for president, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

However, some Republicans privately worry that Pataki and the GOP are doing long-term damage to the party by leading efforts that would make New York the only state where McCain is not on all the ballots.

But the on-again, off-again matter is not over yet.

McCain's lawyers planned today to ask a federal judge in Brooklyn to put him on the ballot in all 31 of the state's districts.

"We all know that I'm a qualified candidate," McCain told reporters after a town hall meeting in Nashua, N.H.

He said he would take the issue to the floor of the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia this summer if the courts fail to satisfy him.

For now, though, Thursday night's ruling means McCain is off the ballot in Western New York, with the exception of the Southern Tier district represented by Rep. Amo Houghton, R-Corning. Bush backers last week dropped an attempt to remove him there.

Wednesday, two Democratic members of the Elections Board voted to let McCain onto eight mostly upstate ballots; a separate action by Republicans seeking to toss him off eight other downstate districts is still in dispute. The Democrats said McCain had made a good-faith effort to collect the required number of petition signatures, even though he came up far short in some cases. In New York, one of the toughest ballot-access states, the signatures of one-half of 1 percent of a district's enrolled Republicans, or 1,000 enrollees, whichever is less, are needed to qualify.

Democratic sources said the party was interested in seeing the Bush and McCain camps feud a bit longer, which, they reasoned, in the end would only help their chosen candidate, Vice President Gore.

But Cannizzaro rejected the board's ruling, saying in essence it had no authority to interpret the state election law that sets minimum signature requirements. He said the state has a "right to impose reasonable access thresholds" to ensure candidates make a showing that they have "substantial support" to get on the ballot.

The judge said the law is necessary "to avoid voter confusion, ballot overcrowding and frivolous candidacies." While McCain's campaign called the signature requirements burdensome, Cannizzaro called them "reasonable."

He said to decide otherwise "would unfairly and unreasonably treat the McCain delegates differently than the other possible candidates who obeyed the clear and unequivocal letter of the law and complied with the process."

Mario Bruno, one of the McCain's campaign directors in New York, said the Bush campaign "is really worried about us, because McCain is formidable." McCain is leading Bush in polls leading up to next week's primary in New Hampshire.

Now, Bruno said, the matter will be decided in federal court, where the stakes are much higher. "I don't think federal court is where they want to be, because they may find the whole system is unconstitutional," he said.

But state party officials felt otherwise. "We're obviously pleased with the decision. We feel the Supreme Court did what the Board of Elections should have done," said Jeff Buley, a lawyer for the state GOP.

While the whole affair may help Bush in the end, some Bush backers say they are worried it could leave the Texas governor with a political black eye that could hurt him -- if he is the candidate in the fall against the Democratic candidate -- with McCain's supporters.

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