Bush, McCain trade barbs

In often bitter debate, GOP hopefuls show previous amity is gone

Key S.C. primary Saturday

February 16, 2000|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Seated only a few feet apart, John McCain and George W. Bush assailed each other bitterly on one issue after another yesterday in a 90-minute debate that could be critical to the outcome of the South Carolina Republican primary Saturday.

The confrontation broke no new ground on the issues but clearly delineated the differences between the two leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.

The acrimony became harshest as they wrangled over who had been responsible for the negative tone of the campaign in the two weeks since McCain defeated Bush by a surprising 19 percentage points in the New Hampshire primary.

The Texas governor repeated his complaint that McCain had crossed a boundary of acceptable political conduct when "he equated me with Bill Clinton." And he rejected the notion of softening his criticism of his rival. "I stand on my ads," Bush said.

McCain replied that "what really went over the line" was an attack on him at a Bush event by a spokesman for what he called "a fringe veterans group" who accused him of forgetting veterans after his return from the war in Vietnam.

"You should be ashamed," McCain said, staring directly at his rival. "You should be ashamed. You should be ashamed of sponsoring an event with that man there who attacked your own father. You should be ashamed."

"The man was not speaking for me,"Bush countered.

"He was at your event," McCain said.

"Let me finish, please," Bush said.

If he was to be blamed for the veteran, the governor went on, McCain should be responsible for criticism of the Christian Coalition by former Sen. Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire, one of McCain's campaign chairmen.

McCain would not yield. "You paid for the event," he said, "and you stood next to him."

The Texas governor scored a clear point by producing from his jacket pocket a flier -- paid for by the McCain campaign -- that attacks him. Bush offered the flier as proof that McCain was conducting a negative campaign despite the senator's insistence that he was not.

Familiar language

The exchange, like many others during the debate moderated by Larry King and broadcast by CNN, ended inconclusively. Both major candidates spelled out their positions in language familiar to those who have heard them, pausing only when a question was directed to the third participant in the debate, Alan L. Keyes.

Most apparent was that whatever amity existed between the two has dissolved in the heat of the campaign here.

The strategies of both candidates were visible through the rhetoric. Bush stressed his argument that he would be the stronger nominee against the Democrats in the fall. McCain depicted the issue as being who would offer "grown-up" leadership on critical problems.

The Arizona senator made his familiar complaint that his party has "lost its way" and is doomed to minority status unless it chooses a leader who can rebuild the coalition that once existed between Ronald Reagan and conservative Democrats.

One of the issues on which there was a clear and potentially significant division was abortion rights.

The `Reagan plank'

Both candidates have refused to require opposition to Roe vs. Wade as a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees. But they divided on whether they would endorse the "Reagan plank" in the Republican platform against all abortions.

McCain repeated his previous statements that he would allow exceptions to any ban on abortion for cases of rape, incest or a threat to the life of the mother. And he said Bush was ruling out such exceptions by supporting the previous platform language.

Then, matching his rival tit for tat, he underlined his point by reaching into his pocket for a flier in which Bush pledges his support for "a pro-life plank."

Bush countered that the language calls for a constitutional amendment but doesn't specify what exceptions might be allowed. "I think we need to keep the platform the way it is," he said.

Again, the exchange broke no new ground. But it did illuminate the differences between the two men and, not incidentally, the reason Bush has captured the backing of the anti-abortion activists who are running radio and television commercials against McCain in the final days of this campaign.

McCain was clearly seeking to depict himself as the elder statesman better equipped by experience. One example came in a discussion after the moderator asked them about the conditions under which the United States should intervene militarily in crises abroad.

Bush offered the conventional response that American arms should be used only "when it's in our national strategic interests." McCain quickly interceded, saying, "It's not that simple."

There are times, he said, when "our principles and values are so offended" that the United State is obliged to act, as, for example, to avoid mass death in Rwanda. The issue, the 63-year-old senator implied, is more complex than the 53-year-old state governor appreciated.

Asked about his potential effectiveness if elected president, Bush noted the governors and senators who support him, proving, he suggested, that he could lead by bringing Congress with him.

No `Miss Congeniality'

McCain countered by conceding that he would not "win the Miss Congeniality of the U.S. Senate" but added that he has gotten 234 pieces of legislation passed in 18 years in the Senate.

"My credentials are well known," he said.

The debate, sponsored by a local association of businesses and industries, was the last major event of the campaign that ends Saturday. Opinion polls show the two candidates running essentially even.

The key to the outcome, both sides recognize, is the turnout. If it is largely made up of regular Republicans, Bush will be favored. If there is a large independent turnout, McCain should win.

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