Bush supporters attempt to deflect anti-Catholic accusations

Polls indicate close vote in Maryland primary

March 01, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Maryland Republican leaders supporting Gov. George W. Bush tried to blunt charges of anti-Catholicism against their candidate yesterday as polls showed him in a close race with Sen. John McCain in the state's primary on Tuesday.

Independent voters -- more than 11 percent of all registered -- could make a crucial difference if they take advantage of their right to cast ballots in the Republican primary for the first time.

Meanwhile, former Sen. Bill Bradley trails far behind Vice President Al Gore for the state's Democratic delegates.

A poll released by the Gonzales/Arscott group yesterday showed Bush with 47 percent of likely voters in the state's Republican primary to McCain's 37 percent, with Maryland's Alan Keyes getting 4 percent and 12 percent undecided. Bush had a 29-point lead in that group's January poll.

Those numbers mirrored the findings of a Potomac Survey Research poll released Monday that showed Bush leading with 47 percent to McCain's 40 percent. Both polls had a margin of error of more than 5 percent.

The two surveys agreed that Gore is running away with the Democratic race in Maryland, winning 63 percent of the likely voters to Bradley's 24 percent in the Gonzales/Arscott poll. The Potomac poll put Gore ahead 58 percent to 23 percent. In the January poll, Gore had a 45 percent to 37 percent lead.

The polls also agreed that McCain would be a stronger Republican candidate against Gore in Maryland, running even in the Gonzales/Arscott poll -- 45 percent McCain to 47 percent Gore -- and beating Gore 46 to 40 in the Potomac poll. Gore easily beats Bush in both tallies.

In Annapolis yesterday, Republican officials supporting Bush decried what they called McCain's exploitation of Bush's recent appearance at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., a fundamentalist Christian school with a history of racial discrimination, rules that forbid interracial dating and a leader who has issued virulent anti-Catholic statements.

Bush made the visit while campaigning for the Feb. 19 South Carolina primary, which he won. Before the Michigan primary, three days later, McCain approved tape-recorded calls aimed at Catholic voters that said Bush "stayed silent" on Bob Jones' "anti-Catholic bigotry." McCain won that vote.

"This has been a very vicious and distorted attempt to drive a wedge between George Bush and Catholic voters," said Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who heads the Bush campaign in Maryland, speaking in front of the State House.

Bush initially refused to apologize for speaking at Bob Jones University. But this week he wrote a letter to Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, where a primary will also be held Tuesday.

Bush defended his record of "tolerance and respect for the religious views of others," adding, "On reflection, I should have been more clear in disassociating myself from anti-Catholic sentiments and racial prejudice."

Sen. Christopher J. McCabe of Howard County, who chairs the group of state senators for Bush, described himself as "a Catholic Republican."

"I feel strongly that Governor Bush builds bridges while his opponent seeks to divide and burn bridges," McCabe said.

The only one of the state's 14 Republican senators who had yet to support Bush announced that he was backing the Texas governor in part because of this issue. Andrew P. Harris of Baltimore County said he had planned to remain neutral during the primaries.

"What happened in the last few days has changed my mind," he said of McCain's use of the Bob Jones speech. "We need more people who have religion and moral character involved in politics, not fewer."

Tony Caliguiri, director of McCain's campaign in Maryland, said there are no plans to make such calls in the state.

"We're not doing anything like that in Maryland," he said. "I think it's a bad tactical error on their part even to bring up the issue. Then everyone just has to read about the speech again."

Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, said no one had mentioned the Bush controversy to him.

"I hadn't really heard the issue raised here, but I've heard it raised in other places in the country," Keeler said. "So I think [Bush] did well by making public that letter that he wrote to Cardinal O'Connor."

Caliguiri said the McCain campaign is making phone calls to Maryland independents, and, like the polls, it is finding many do not know that they are eligible to vote Tuesday. Only the Republican primary is open to independents; the Democratic vote is limited to registered Democrats.

Both polls show that the independents are backing McCain -- 77 percent to 8 percent in Gonzales/Arscott; 54 to 28 percent in Potomac. But the Gonzales/Arscott survey found that half the independents polled were not aware they are eligible to vote.

"There is no tradition of independents voting in Maryland as there is in other states that have always held open primaries," said Carol Arscott. "So it is just not clear what sort of impact they will have."

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