McCain comes up swinging

Loss in S.C. prompts tougher fight in Mich.

February 21, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- A bloodied but fiery John McCain continued playing rough yesterday, aggressively drawing distinctions between himself and George W. Bush and returning to the reformist message that had become muffled in the final days of his unsuccessful South Carolina campaign.

"If he's a reformer, then I'm an astronaut," the Arizona senator said throughout the day as he sought to recharge his troops for tomorrow's crucial Republican presidential primary in Michigan.

Still smarting from his defeat Saturday in South Carolina, McCain presented himself as the defiant outsider taking on the GOP power structure while adding even more bite to his criticism of the Texas governor.

His campaign also got some good news in the form of an endorsement from Rep. Peter T. King of New York, who had been backing Bush but said he was offended as a Roman Catholic by the governor's appearance at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, which critics say fosters anti-Catholic views.

"That to me just showed a willingness to take any road to the White House," King told the Associated Press.

"Is Mr. King suggesting that I have an anti-Catholic bias because I went to a university?" Bush asked later in the day. "I go to universities all the time."

King, Bush said, "should not ascribe anything to my heart because my record is a lot different from what he thinks it might be."

McCain also lashed out at Bush's appearance at Bob Jones University.

Referring to the university, McCain said, "You people are bigots, and you're in the 17th century somewhere. I wouldn't have walked into Bob Jones University and pandered to them."

McCain's tone yesterday was in line with the combative concession speech he delivered Saturday night in South Carolina when the magnitude of his loss to Bush -- 11 percentage points -- had become clear.

Dispensing with his usual practice of making oblique references to his opponent, McCain frequently called Bush by name yesterday -- eight times in one speech -- and questioned the Texas governor's ability to cut taxes, control spending and enact meaningful campaign finance reform if he were elected president.

Yesterday was no comfortable jaunt along snowy Michigan highways, but rather an unabashed and hard-charging effort to somehow fashion the victory his campaign desperately needs tomorrow.

McCain -- a Navy flier in Vietnam and a prisoner of war in the North Vietnamese prison compound known as the Hanoi Hilton -- portrayed himself as a resilient tough guy who has bounced back from more than his share of adversity.

"We took a punch yesterday, but we got up off the floor," he told a spirited rally in Livonia, a Detroit suburb. "I've gotten up off the floor. I've taken a few punches. I've crashed a few airplanes. I've spent a couple of years in a hotel where there's no mint on the pillow."

All day, McCain's supporters suggested differences between their candidate and Bush.

At a Michigan State University rally here, McCain's Michigan campaign chairman, state Sen. John Schwarz, recalled once contrasting the two men: "I said, `Governor Bush: smoking jacket. John McCain: full metal jacket.' "

Here, as in South Carolina, Bush enjoys the support of most of the Republican Party establishment, led by Gov. John Engler. McCain joked that Schwarz "had to hire somebody to start his car this morning" after defying Engler and campaigning for the Arizona senator.

Schwarz, in a separate appearance on ABC's "This Week," said McCain can be encouraged by the contrast between his state and South Carolina: "Michigan is the first state that's a real slice of life. So I think this is a new ballgame in Michigan."

McCain, appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," pulled no punches. Asked if he still believes Bush "twists the truth" like President Clinton, as McCain claimed in an ad that backfired on him in South Carolina by offending many Republicans, he replied, "Of course he does."

Asked to detail the Bush charges he considers untrue, the Arizona senator said: "When he says that I'm not a reformer, when he says I'm a hypocrite, when he says that I'm in the pocket of lobbyists."

McCain was met with boisterous crowds and delivered an array of jokes and applause lines. He seemed liberated from his South Carolina routine, where he spent days beating the drum against negative campaigning.

To some supporters the new, freewheeling McCain was a welcome switch from the man they had seen battling in South Carolina. Nola Wellman, a 38-year-old Plymouth homemaker and McCain supporter, said she thought McCain was more caught up in the debate over negative campaign tactics than ordinary voters were.

"It doesn't matter who has the more negative ads, it matters who is the better man," said Wellman, whose vote for McCain will be the first of her life. "He needs to get past `who is more negative?' It's not really the issue."

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