Bush, McCain clash on tax cuts, campaign funding during debate

GOP candidates disagree on slicing up U.S. surplus, running on `soft money'

January 08, 2000|By BOSTON GLOBE

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush repeatedly went on the attack last night against his chief rival in this vital primary state, accusing Arizona Sen. John McCain of supporting big government and a Democratic version of campaign finance overhaul.

McCain, who has said he would quit the race if he loses in this state, responded during a nationally televised Republican presidential debate by ridiculing Bush's support for the way political parties accept unregulated "soft money."

"I've always felt what is best for the country is best for the party," McCain said. "You are defending an illegal system."

Bush, eager to deliver a knockout blow to the Arizonan here, came prepared to attack McCain on the party's core issue: tax cuts. Bush said that under his plan, a couple earning $42,000 a year would get an $1,852 tax break. He said they would get only a $200 reduction under McCain's plan.

"Under my idea," the budget surplus "goes into people's pockets," Bush said.

McCain countered, saying, "It's fiscally irresponsible to promise a huge tax cut that is based on a surplus that we might not have."

For the second straight night, Bush and McCain dominated the debate of the six GOP candidates. The four other candidates -- publisher Steve Forbes, former Reagan aide Gary L. Bauer, talk show host Alan L. Keyes, and Utah's Sen. Orrin G. Hatch -- threw their share of barbs, but mostly at Democrats.

When Bush was asked to describe the biggest mistake of his adult life, he turned it into a joke.

"I was managing general partner of the mighty Texas Rangers. I signed off on that wonderful transaction: Sammy Sosa for Harold Baines," Bush said, referring to the baseball team's trade of the future superstar home-run hitter for a veteran designated hitter.

McCain said his biggest mistake was meeting with regulators on behalf of a contributor in the Keating Five savings and loan scandal.

That general issue of intervening with regulators continued to dog McCain. Debate moderator Brian Williams, the MSNBC-TV anchor, asked McCain about a report that he wrote a letter on behalf of phone company Ameritech, which wanted government permission to merge with the SBC phone company.

"Whenever a constituent of mine or a citizen can't get an answer, I believe that people like me should weigh in," McCain said

Friday night's debate was far different from the one held Thursday in Durham, N.H. The partisan crowd here stomped and hollered and booed at various questions, applauded their favorites and hooted others.

Bush declined to be drawn into a question of whether he is offended by the Confederate flag that flies above the statehouse.

"You are trying to get me to express the will of the people of South Carolina," Bush said, refusing to reveal his personal view. "I believe the people of South Carolina can figure out what to do with this flag issue."

The debate also included these highlights:

Bush, pressed by Bauer about whether he would try to regain U.S. control of the Panama Canal, said he would "liberate" it if he was convinced Panama was not allowing commerce to pass through.

McCain, asked by Keyes whether he would reinstitute the ban on homosexuals in the military, said: "I will not, Alan." McCain said the current "don't ask, don't tell" policy is a good one, but he called it "disgraceful" that Democratic candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley said Wednesday they want a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who backs having homosexuals serve openly in the armed forces.

Bauer, asked what he would do if his daughter were raped and sought an abortion, responded: "I would explain she couldn't make right the terrible thing that happened to her by taking the life of an unborn child."

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