ALBANY, N.Y. - A federal judge will order New York's Republican presidential primary ballot opened up completely to John McCain, and possibly to Alan Keyes, a lawyer for the state's top Republicans said today.
Jeffrey Buley, chief counsel for state GOP Chairman William Powers, said U.S. District Judge Edward Korman had decided that all the contenders would have until Thursday of next week to come up with delegate slates for the primary ballot.
Buley said the judge had decided none of the candidates would have to gather signatures of party members to qualify their delegate slates as is required by current state rules.
There was no immediate confirmation from the courthouse in New York City where lawyers for McCain and the state GOP had been meeting behind closed doors with the judge.
There had been discussions about the possibility of allowing candidates on the March 7 ballot in any of the state's 31 congressional districts in which they had collected the signatures of 0.1 percent of party members. The current requirement is 0.5 percent.
But Buley said Korman decided to make it even easier for the candidates.
McCain had been battling to get back on the ballot in 12 of the state's 31 congressional districts. He had qualified for the other 19.
On Thursday, bowing to widespread criticism and pressure from George W. Bush, New York Gov. George Pataki had said McCain would be on New York's presidential primary ballot throughout the state.
Until Thursday, Bush's most powerful New York backer had supported an effort led by GOP boss Powers to knock McCain off the ballot in much of the state.
But Pataki said Thursday, ``John McCain should be on the ballot. This should be a campaign about ideas and issues, not technicalities. I'm confident that George Bush will win that campaign.''
Bush praised any move to allow his chief rival to compete on ballots statewide in New York, although it would give McCain another shot at competing head to head with the Texas governor.
``It's the right decision. I welcome it,'' Bush told reporters after campaigning in Delaware.
McCain, who had held a news conference in front of the Russian consulate in New York City to denounce the ``Stalinist politics'' of the New York Republican Party, joked of Pataki: ``I'll never call him comrade again.''
The Arizona senator was campaigning in South Carolina, where he's angling to beat Bush in that state's Feb. 19 primary in order to maintain his momentum after his stunning victory over Bush in New Hampshire's primary on Tuesday.
This morning, appearing on NBC's ``Today'' show, McCain said the decision in New York could turn the tide there in his favor. ``I'm pleased they came around and put us on the ballot and now I think we're going to win New York too,'' he said.
Pataki's move came after a day in which there were growing signs New York's GOP hierarchy, backing Bush's candidacy, was ready to buckle. McCain sent letters to Pataki and Powers earlier in the day calling on them to ``do the right thing for New York Republicans.''
Bush, appearing in Dover, Del., had said, ``Put him on the ballot. If the judge decides he should be on the ballot, let him be on the ballot.''
The shift came after Bush, stung by McCain's big New Hampshire primary win Tuesday and unhappy about handing McCain an issue tailor-made for his ``outsider'' campaign, sent a message Wednesday to his New York supporters that their fight to keep McCain off primary ballots in more than one-third of the state's congressional district had gone far enough.
The Bush message was clear: If McCain wins his federal court lawsuit to open up the New York ballot, as expected, don't appeal the ruling.
Pataki spokeswoman Zenia Mucha said that even if the judge ruled against McCain, Pataki was ready to ``take the appropriate steps to ensure that (McCain) is on the ballot.''
McCain's New York campaign director, Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari, said he was pleased with Pataki's move, but called it ``too little, too late.'' The former congressman said, ``they've hurt Governor Bush.''
While the lawyers were going before the judge this morning, McCain had said on the ``Today'' show that he didn't want a settlement of the lawsuit, but a court ruling in his favor. ``Obviously we've got to continue with our suit so a machine can never do it to another candidate again,'' the senator said.