GOP candidates trade charges of negative politics

Bush, McCain clash over education, who's the real reformer

Keyes alleges `blackout'

March 03, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LOS ANGELES -- From the California campaign trail to a nationally televised debate, Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain slugged it out yesterday over negative politicking in the Republican presidential contest.

McCain, who acknowledged that his candidacy had been hurt by a continuing focus on tactics rather than issues, defended phone calls his campaign has been making in heavily Catholic states that attack Bush's visit last month to Bob Jones University.

"I think it was straight talk, because we wanted to tell people exactly what Governor Bush had done," McCain said, when asked in a debate last night why the "anti-Catholic alert" calls were not identified as coming from his campaign.

"We're changing the face of politics and America, and I'm very proud of this campaign and the way we've conducted it," the Arizona senator said. "But I'm not here to squabble about that. I'm here to talk about the issues that are important to us today."

McCain denied that the calls, which focused on the anti-Catholic bias of the school where Bush spoke, labeled the Texas governor as anti-Catholic.

That brought a heated response from Bush, who told McCain, "If you don't think those phone calls labeled me an anti-Catholic bigot, then you were not paying attention to what your campaign was putting out."

The 13th debate of the Republican campaign came just five days before more than a dozen states, including Maryland, hold delegate contests Tuesday. It was held at the offices of the Los Angeles Times, a co-sponsor, though McCain appeared via satellite hookup from St. Louis.

Polls show McCain trailing Bush in California and a close race in New York, the other big delegate prize on Tuesday. But it did not appear that the debate did anything to help the Arizona underdog in either state.

Perhaps the sharpest difference over issues emerged when Bush was asked about his proposal to require states to test students, as a way of checking whether federal education money was being properly spent.

The governor said the federal mandate was necessary, "in order to make sure that children are not left behind, it is important that we measure. before it's too late."

McCain, however, said that "no matter how Governor Bush slices it, it's federal control of education."

The two men also swapped barbs over who the real political reformer is in the Republican race.

Bush used one of McCain's trademark lines, about the "iron triangle" of special interests, lobbyists and legislation in Washington, to accuse his rival of hypocrisy on campaign finance reform.

"You talk about the iron triangle, and you're ringing it like a dinner bell with all those fund-raisers with those lobbyists in Washington, D.C.," Bush said.

McCain retorted, "If I'm ringing it like a dinner bell, then you've got both feet in the trough, because you've raised five times as much money in Washington as I have."

The third candidate in the race, Alan L. Keyes, the former State Department official and radio talk show host, criticized what he called "the media blackout" of his campaign. He noted that none of the major broadcast networks, which reach the largest audience of viewers, has carried any of the Republican debates.

Keyes also declared that if McCain won the nomination, he would not vote for him, noting McCain's statements on abortion.

"He is pro-choice," Keyes said of the Arizona senator. "He is not pro-life. I will not support a pro-choice, pro-abortion candidate."

McCain responded by asserting that "the fact is, I'm a proud pro-life candidate."

The senator had opened himself up to questions about his opposition to abortion during the campaign by saying that if his teen-age daughter became pregnant, the issue of whether to have an abortion would be a "family decision."

On gun control, Bush said the "ultimate solution" to such tragedies as the murder of a Michigan first-grader by a classmate is the manufacture of "smart guns."

But the governor says he would not require gun manufacturers to put trigger locks on all weapons made in this country because there is no way to require gun owners to use them.

"The question is, how do we enforce it?" Bush said. "Are we going to have trigger-lock police knocking on your door saying, `Show me your trigger lock?' "

Getting back to issues

Bush and McCain began their verbal battling earlier in the day during campaign stops in Southern California. McCain, insisting that he intends to refocus on issues rather than on campaign tactics, lashed out at Bush and his allies over campaign ads now airing in several key states with primaries Tuesday.

Citing "published reports," McCain accused Bush of "renting out the governor's mansion" by giving overnight stays to campaign donors, just as President Clinton had done with the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House in the 1996 campaign. The Arizona senator said that Bush's "Pioneers," his campaign's biggest fund-raisers, had pledged "$100,000 campaign contributions" after spending the night.

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