Mich. race tight, testy

Voters head to polls in GOP primary seen as too close to call

Arizona primary also today

After S.C. defeat, McCain zeros in on `negative campaigning'

February 22, 2000|By Jules Witcover and Ellen Gamerman | Jules Witcover and Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DETROIT -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain face each other in Michigan's Republican presidential primary today, with Bush seeking to solidify his front-runner status and McCain striving for a comeback after his loss Saturday in South Carolina.

Although the Michigan campaign has been exceedingly brief, it has been long enough to underscore McCain's heightened bitterness toward Bush in the wake of the Texan's South Carolina victory, and Bush's efforts to look past the McCain challenge to the general election.

Voters in Arizona, McCain's home state, also go to the polls today; McCain is expected to win.

The combative McCain strategy continued yesterday, as the senator lobbed fresh accusations that his rival was engaged in negative campaigning here -- calling it the same "sleaze campaign" that brought Bush success in South Carolina.

At a Traverse City town meeting, McCain told a packed reception hall: "My friends, reject this negative campaigning. Reject this character assassination, reject the low road to the presidency and support those who want to take the high road.

"You deserve a lot better than the trash that's on your television set and over the radio."

Later, McCain entered a high school gym to the "Star Wars" theme, portraying himself as Luke Skywalker battling forces on the Death Star.

"They're shooting at me from everywhere," he said. "Everybody's against me. Governor [John] Engler [of Michigan] is against me. Governor Bush, all the governors, all the senators, but we're going to kill them, right? We're going to get them. I'm getting out of the Death Star. We're going to win the election."

By contrast, in two days of campaigning in Michigan Bush has said little about McCain, focusing more on Vice President Al Gore as the likely Democratic nominee. His references to his Republican rival were mostly lighthearted.

Commenting yesterday on McCain's repeated reference to the "iron triangle of money, lobbyists and legislation" that the Arizona senator says corrupts politics, Bush said, "He's been ringing that iron triangle like a dinner bell, raising the money from lobbyists."

In a lengthy speech to the prestigious Economic Club of Detroit, he did not mention McCain. Instead he defended his proposal to devote the bulk of the federal surplus to a tax cut.

"The voices of the status quo say it is too risky," he said. "Leaving the surplus in Washington, D.C., is too risky."

In a poll of 602 likely Michigan voters taken after the South Carolina primary by Zogby International, McCain was narrowly leading Bush 43 percent to 41 percent, about the same margin as in another survey taken before Bush's victory in the South.

McCain takes the heat

Although Bush attacked McCain as far back as the New Hampshire primary, McCain has taken most of the heat for the campaign's tone as a result of two ads he ran during the South Carolina primary in which he compared Bush's trustworthiness to that of President Clinton.

One closed by asking: "Do we really need another politician in the White House we can't trust?" The other charged that Bush "twists the truth like Clinton."

Bush pounced on the ads, saying that being compared to Clinton was about as low as an allegation could get in a Republican primary.

Subsequent polls have indicated that most voters surveyed believe McCain, not Bush, started the whole negative advertising clash and had continued running such ads, although he pulled them off the air a week ago.

It was like the football player who returns a punch but finds he is the one called for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Voters see a poor sport

In addition, McCain's harsh comments about Bush on Saturday, after the governor had defeated him in South Carolina, drew criticism not only from the press and television but also from Michigan voters.

Among his remarks were: "I will not take the low road to the highest office in this land" and "I want to be the president in the best way, not the worst way."

At a Bush rally Sunday in Southfield, John Passfield, 75, a World War II veteran, said, "I never heard anything that negative. It made me want to go out and work for Bush."

Lisa Aldrich of Bloomfield Hills said she thought McCain came off "a little like a poor-loser type."

At stake in Michigan today are 58 delegates to the Republican National Convention, to be allocated among Bush, McCain and former Maryland talk-show host Alan L. Keyes in proportion to their vote totals.

More important will be the impact on public opinion as the campaign moves toward March 7 -- Super Tuesday -- when 11 states, including Maryland, will hold their primaries. McCain has said he will go on to the March 7 tests whether he wins or loses in Michigan.

For the third time in three weeks, Democrats and independents are permitted to vote in the GOP primary, obliging Bush to garner enough Republican ballots to overcome McCain's strength among non-Republicans.

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