ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ Gov. George Pataki, the top New York backer of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, waved the white flag of surrender Thursday in the battle to keep Sen. John McCain off the state's presidential primary ballot.

``I believe that John McCain should be on the ballot,'' the governor said in a statement. ``This should be a campaign about ideas and issues, not technicalities. I'm confident that George Bush will win that campaign.''

Pataki said Bush agreed with him.

With growing signs that New York's GOP hierarchy appeared ready to buckle, McCain had sent letters to Pataki and state GOP chairman William Powers earlier in the day urging them to ``do the right thing for New York Republicans'' by putting him on the ballot.

The apparent shift among state GOP leaders came after Bush, stung by McCain's big New Hampshire primary win and unhappy about handing McCain an issue for his ``outsider'' campaign, signaled New York supporters that their fight to keep McCain off primary ballots in more than one-third of the state's congressional districts had gone far enough.

Karl Rove, one of the Texas governor's top strategists, told state GOP leaders that Bush would prefer his supporters not appeal if McCain wins a federal court challenge, a Bush adviser said.

Bush himself, asked about the situation during a Dover, Del., stop, said, ``Put him on the ballot. If the judge decides he should be on the ballot, let him be on the ballot.''

The judge in the case said Thursday that no ruling would be issued before Monday at the earliest. Lawyers on both sides said they expected it to be a victory for McCain.

Pataki spokeswoman Zenia Mucha said that if the judge happened to rule against McCain, Pataki was ready to ``take the appropriate steps to ensure that (McCain) is on the ballot.'' Mucha said she could not elaborate on what those steps would be.

Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari, director of McCain's campaign in New York, said he was pleased with Pataki's statement, but called it ``too little, too late.'' The former congressman said, ``they've hurt Governor Bush.''

But Mucha said, ``We believe McCain is hiding behind the issue of ballot access ... When ballot access is off the table, it's clear he has nothing to talk about in New York.''

There also was talk that the McCain camp and the state GOP were in discussions that might lead to a settlement of the case. Molinari said he knew nothing about that.

There was no immediate comment from Powers, but one of his lawyers, Lawrence Mandelker, said, ``There obviously is enormous political pressure for a settlement.''

McCain has repeatedly criticized Bush for not calling off the effort to block his access to the New York ballot for the March 7 primary. The argument has been over McCain's petitions, which lacked the required number of signatures to get him on the ballot in some congressional districts.

Pataki, who has been mentioned as a possible Bush running mate, has also come under widespread criticism.

The controversy took another twist Wednesday when Bush's delegate slate was knocked off the ballot by a state judge in one of the state's 31 congressional districts. Lawyers for Powers conceded there were fraudulent signatures on Bush petitions in the district. They had been challenged by lawyers for publisher Steve Forbes, who is also on the New York ballot.

``As you sow, so shall you reap,'' Molinari said.

New York's rules require presidential candidates to gather party members' signatures in each of the state's 31 congressional districts to get their delegate slates on the ballot. McCain is battling in federal court to get back on the ballot in 12 districts. He has qualified in the others.