Supporters of Republican presidential candidate John McCain began an uphill battle today to get the Arizona senator back on New York's March 7 presidential primary ballot in several congressional districts where he was kicked off by a state court.

Supporters of McCain's chief rival, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, pressed numerous challenges to McCain's ballot qualifications, and a state judge ruled Thursday that McCain was ineligible to be on the ballot in eight congressional districts because he had not secured enough petition signatures. McCain also has been removed by election officials from two other district ballots.

Today, McCain's supporters argued their case before a federal judge, who they hope will open up New York's complicated and prohibitive ballot access rules and allow McCain onto more ballots. The rules are widely seen as designed to bolster the power of the state Republican Party to advance its favorite candidate.

"Elections are about empowering voters to make choices; they're not about forcing choices down the throat of voters," said E. Joshua Rosenkranz, president of New York University Law School's Brennan Center for Justice, which argued on McCain's behalf in U.S. District Court.

New York's byzantine ballot-qualifying process is among the most complex in the country and has sparked numerous challenges in previous years.

The state GOP's success at the state court level was a stinging blow to McCain, because it could leave him on the ballot in just 16 of the state's 31 congressional districts, because McCain filed petitions in only 26 districts.

McCain blamed Bush for failing to exercise his influence to open up the ballot. "I'm very disappointed in Governor Bush," he told reporters today in New Hampshire. "He could've exercised some leadership and told them [the state party] to let us on the ballot. . . . Everybody knows he has control" of the New York ballot by virtue of Bush's ties to the Republican establishment there.

Dan Allen, spokesman for the New York Republican State Committee, countered that the party was simply sticking to the ballot access rules: "We specifically applied the rules as they're written to make sure Republican candidates seeking the highest office in the land could actually get a minimum number of Republicans who support them within each congressional district."

Under state GOP rules, a candidate must secure a certain number of petition signatures in each of the state's 31 districts to qualify for each district's ballot. In effect, New York runs 31 primaries at once.

The district with the highest petition hurdle--the 22nd, in the suburbs of Albany--requires 890 signatures to qualify for a ballot spot. But McCain's campaign submitted only 600 signatures in that district, along with a disclaimer criticizing the ballot rules as unfair, according to a source familiar with McCain's petition filing.

In their federal suit, McCain supporters argue that New York's ballot access rules are too burdensome and that they violate the right of citizens to vote for the candidate of their choice.

McCain expressed confidence that his federal lawsuit will be successful, even though a similar challenge by Steve Forbes in 1996 failed. "What's going to matter is whether we have a federal judge who believes in fairness," he said. The judge in the Forbes case ordered improvements in ballot access, and McCain hopes to show that no real changes were made. "I have some optimism [the judge] will say, 'Look, you didn't do what I said.' "

McCain also promised to fight the issue through GOP channels: "We'll fight, if necessary, on the floor of the convention. We'll challenge credentials," he said. "We'll exhaust every avenue."

Staff writer David Von Drehle in New Hampshire contributed to this report.