Against a gloomy, snow-swept backdrop worthy of an epic Russian novel, John McCain stood in front of the Russian consulate here today to demand an end to what he characterized as an anti-democratic effort to deny him access to the New York primary ballot by state politicians aligned with his Republican presidential rival, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
"My message today is, Mr. Powers, open up those ballots," McCain thundered in an oddly good-natured tone. He was referring to New York GOP Chairman William Powers, who along with Gov. George E. Pataki and other Bush allies here have mounted a legal challenge to petitions filed by McCain supporters to get the Arizona senator's name on the March 7 primary ballot.
The hastily arranged event, which transformed the narrow Upper East Side street where the consulate is located into a chaotic scene of jostling photographers and television camera crews, was carried out in an almost whimsical fashion. But the underlying purpose of the location was to embarrass Bush and his New York allies by suggesting that their tactics did not even meet the standards of a fledgling democracy such as Russia.
"There's an interesting kind of coincidence here as we stand by the Russian consulate," McCain said. "In March there will be an election here in New York to determine the Republican and Democrat nominees. And in Russia there will be a presidential election. In Russia, there will be more than one name on the ballot. In New York, unless something happens, there will be only one name on the ballot. It seems to me that history has been turned on its head."
McCain added that he will "fight in the courts, fight in public opinion and I will fight at the Republican National Convention if necessary" for the ballot access stand he has taken in New York.
McCain thoroughly enjoyed the event. Just before he came marching out of the gloom toward the consulate, his aides frantically positioned cameramen to make sure that the gray, four-story building with its drooping Russian flag hanging outside would be in the pictures.
Afterward, as McCain trudged back toward his campaign bus with photographers and camera crews swirling around him, he was asked why he chose the Russian consulate to make his point.
"Because I think it makes a good photo op," he replied with typical candor.
New York's arcane ballot access laws are among the most complicated in the country and are widely seen as designed to bolster the power of the state GOP to advance its favorite candidates. Candidates who want to appear on the New York ballot must file petitions with different signatures on them in each of the state's 31 congressional districts. It is a system that means, in effect, there are 31 primaries in one state.
McCain supporters have filed petitions in 26 districts and statewide, but Bush's allies who control the state GOP are challenging the McCain petitions in 16 of those districts. The state GOP has charged that signatures on some McCain petitions are not valid because they are not from Republicans, people registered to vote or residents in the congressional district where they signed a petition.
Contrary to McCain's statement, Bush would not be the only GOP presidential candidate on the New York primary ballot if his allies succeed in wiping the Arizona senator's name off the ballot. Magazine publisher Steve Forbes will likely manage to get his name on the ballot in most districts.
The state Board of Elections began its review of the challenges Wednesday. On Friday, a state election commissioner will preside at a hearing in which findings of the review will be presented and each side in the dispute may present its case, said Lee Daghlian, a board of elections spokesman.
Typically, Daghlian said, campaigns get far more signatures than they need, as protection against the loss of some signatures through challenges.
"The rule of thumb is: if you need a hundred, you get 300," he said. Speaking of McCain's petitions, he said, "On the face of it it looked like there weren't enough signatures to begin with, so naturally anybody that's in this business would challenge them."
The Bush campaign wasted no time counterattacking McCain. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer called him "a serial ballot challenger," and added: "I think Senator McCain's cause would be helped if he himself had not engaged in the practice he now calls Stalinist."
Fleischer was referring to the fact that McCain has challenged petitions in his home state to keep challengers off the ballot. Powers said in a statement that the New York GOP is using the same grounds to challenge McCain that he used in Arizona to challenge his foes.
McCain today dismissed that charge. "The fact is Arizona's effort is to put credible candidates on the ballot," he said. "New York has a history of taking credible candidates off of the ballot. And that's a very big difference."