- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2000

George W. Bush and John McCain competed for their party's conservative base and independent swing voters last night, with each claiming he had the leadership qualities needed to move a reform agenda through Congress.

But a more aggressive Mr. Bush identified himself as "a reformer," and repeatedly drew distinctions between his conservative proposals and Mr. McCain's reformist, anti-establishment agenda.

Mr. McCain, whose conservative credentials have been challenged by Mr. Bush, said he was "a proud conservative" who believed that "the key to reform is to get government out of the hands of the special interests."

The stakes were high for both men in last night's spirited debate in Columbia, S.C., sponsored by CNN, as they approach Saturday's critical South Carolina presidential primary. The latest polls give Mr. Bush a slight edge.

Nowhere was the contrast between the two candidates more forcefully argued than on tax cuts an issue that resonates strongly among the GOP's base.

Mr. Bush compared his 10-year, $1 trillion tax cut plan to Mr. McCain's $270 billion cut, saying it would not touch the $2 trillion in Social Security surpluses that is being used to pay down the debt and shore up the program.

Mr. McCain dismissed the Bush tax cut, sarcastically saying that "it's not the Washington mentality, it's the grown-up mentality that we have an obligation to protect Social Security."

Mr. Bush shot back that his plan was based on his view that "I don't trust Congress. I trust people. Either you trust the people to spend your own money or you trust Washington."

At the same time, the Texas governor repeatedly contrasted his work as a consensus-maker between Democrats and Republicans in Texas with the difficulties Mr. McCain has encountered with Senate Republicans who oppose his campaign-finance reforms.

"Who can go to Washington and convince the Congress that they should follow an agenda? I've been there. I have a record to show that I've done that," Mr. Bush said.

But Mr. McCain stressed his image as a reformer who appeals to independents and Democrats.

"The Republican Party has lost its way. We must open up this party and reconstitute the old Reagan Democrats. I can do that," he said.

Seeking to score some political points on the issue of negative advertising, Mr. McCain said Mr. Bush has used unfair telemarketing methods to level personal attacks on him charges in which Mr. Bush denied any involvement.

In the evening's most emotional exchange, Mr. McCain cited a Vietnam War veteran who stood with Mr. Bush accusing the senator of forgetting the Vietnam veterans after he came to Congress. "You should be ashamed," the Arizonan said.

Mr. McCain is counting on strong support from the state's sizable veteran community, which could swing the primary.

But an unmoved Mr. Bush struck back, saying he had said many times before that Mr. McCain "represented our country honorably. The man was not speaking for me."

Mr. McCain has focused much of campaign attention on the controversy over negative ads, but it was not clear whether the issue mattered much to voters. His polls have declined over the past two weeks since he fired back at Mr. Bush with negative ads of his own.

But Mr. Bush's words seemed strategically tied to voting blocs he needed to win the primary.

When Mr. McCain attacked him on his ads, Mr. Bush noted that one of Mr. McCain's chief campaign advisers, former New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman, had called members of the Christian Coalition which is supporting Mr. Bush "bigots," he said.

The Christian Coalition is one of Mr. Bush's strongest supporters, and he was counting on Mr. Rudman's remark to anger and energize this grass-roots group to turn out and vote Saturday.

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