'Buddies' on the outs in the South

February 14, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It was only a few weeks ago when Gov. George W. Bush called Sen. John McCain his buddy in a debate in Michigan and the two Republican candidates shook hands in a mutual pledge not to engage in negative campaigning against each other.

But that was before Mr. McCain's overwhelming victory over Mr. Bush in New Hampshire. Here in their South Carolina primary fight, that pledge has been the first casualty.

Mr. Bush, in a determined makeover of the assumption in New Hampshire that the GOP nomination was his for the asking, came roaring into South Carolina wearing a new self-identification as a reformer with results. It was a very transparent attempt to counter Mr. McCains successful New Hampshire pitch as the candidate who would change things in Washington.

Mr. Bush openly acknowledged that the new self-label resulted from the lessons of New Hampshire, but there obviously were other lessons. In a post-New Hampshire strategy meeting back in the campaigns Austin bunker, it was deemed imperative for Mr. Bush to cut the high-flying Mr. McCain down to size before he added the Feb. 19 South Carolina primary to his belt and really put the Bush campaign on life-support.

There had been some negative skirmishes earlier, but the no-negative pledge really fell by the wayside a week ago amid disagreement over which of the two campaigns was guilty. A Bush ad said a McCain ad about Mr. Bushs tax plan isnt true and McCain knows it and that McCains economic adviser said he supported Mr. Bushs plan. It was a reference to former Rep. Vin Weber, who later denied it. The ad went on to charge McCain echoes Washington Democrats.

As negative ads go these days, it was fairly mild.

The McCain campaign quickly responded with an ad implying Mr. Bushs untrustworthiness and asking: Do we really need another politician in the White House ... we cant trust? A second McCain ad charged that Mr. Bush was getting desperate with a negative ad about me that twists the truth like Clinton. In Republican ranks, there can be no lower blow than to compare somebody to Bill Clinton.

The Republican race suddenly began to resemble the Democratic contest, wherein Al Gore earlier had begun pounding opponent Bill Bradley for certain Senate votes and distorting Mr. Bradleys ambitious and expensive health-care reform plan.

In the Democratic exchange that started in Iowa, Mr. Bradley had failed to respond at first, to his later regret. As the verbal warfare escalated here, Mr. McCain made clear he was not going to make the same mistake. On his Straight Talk Express bus that is a rolling press conference, he told reporters that when attacked he would hit back, while urging his old buddy to enter into a cease-fire. He takes his ads down, we take our ads down, he said.

Are the wheels coming off that campaign? he asked his traveling companions at one point. Later, when a voter at a McCain rally in Spartanburg told of her son receiving a phone call describing Mr. McCain as a cheat and a liar and a fraud, the senator -- assuming the Bush campaign was behind it -- said he was calling on my good friend George Bush to stop this now.

By now, each campaign was running an ad showing the Michigan no-negative campaigning handshake and blaming the other guy for breaking the pledge. Mr. McCain acknowledged to reporters that engaging in negative exchanges with Mr. Bush might imperil his effort to bring young voters into the process with his reform pitch, but that he had no choice, observing that he was not Bill Bradley.

With another critical debate scheduled between Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush in South Carolina tomorrow night, it will be interesting to see whether either of them offers another handshake.

But with the stakes as high as they are for both of them, a resumption of their earlier buddy status will be surprising.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Suns Washington Bureau. Mr. Germonds latest book is Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics (Random House). Mr. Witcovers latest book is No Way to Pick a President (Farrar Straus & Giroux,1999).

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