- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2000

The bitter nomination contest between George W. Bush and John McCain already has created a rift in the GOP that threatens its future unity, Republican leaders say.

The Texas governor, supported by most Republican Senate and House members and governors and touting himself as "a reformer with results," has hammered Mr. McCain as a Washington insider beholden to the very special interests he says he plans to cut out of the political process.

The Arizona senator, running as a "reformer," says the GOP is corrupt and he will fix it with the help of Democrats and independents, whom he has actively courted. He has relentlessly bemoaned what he perceives as negative campaigning by Mr. Bush, whose veracity he has compared to President Clinton.

What rankles Mr. Bush and most Republicans is what they regard as Mr. McCain's cynical invitation to non-Republicans to purloin the GOP presidential nomination process, if not the Republican philosophy and the party itself. That, they say, threatens to create a second Democratic party on the ruins of the Republican Party.

"Republicans will embrace John McCain if they have to, but they will be angry that they were pulled to the left by a primary system that was unfaithful to their ideals," Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating told The Washington Times.

Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III agreed, saying "there is a danger that Democrats and independents can hijack our process."

"It has happened in Virginia, and we have to be sensitive to that," Mr. Gilmore told The Times.

But like some other leading Republicans interviewed, Mr. Gilmore maintained that he is confident his party will come together after the nomination fight is over, leaving no permanent rift.

Iowa Republican Party chairman Kayne Robinson, however, thinks any rosy post-nomination scenario could prove naive.

"The rift clearly is not healable if McCain is the party's candidate," Mr. Robinson said. "How can you make the case that the Republican rank and file will work for a candidate that the Democrats and independents wanted? You'll never get them to go out and work enthusiastically for that person. It's not going to happen."

The rift has been developing ever since Mr. McCain took New Hampshire and Mr. Bush allowed himself to be defined by his rival. Independents voting in the Republican primary there listened to Mr. McCain say the GOP is in the grip of an iron triangle of money, special interests and of legislation influenced by the first two. They voted heavily for him.

Since then, however, Mr. Bush has been defining himself, responding to Mr. McCain's blows with shots of his own. This week in Michigan, Mr. Bush criticized Mr. McCain's double standard on campaign financing, saying the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee has "been ringing that iron triangle like a dinner bell, raising money from lobbyists."

He suggested that Mr. McCain has used his chairmanship of the committee to wrest campaign donations from the very special interests he condemns.

Republican nomination contests in the past are not remembered for accusations of religious bigotry by one side or the other. But supporters of Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush did just that in the run-up to yesterday's Michigan primary. The McCain camp even suggested Mr. Bush was anti-Catholic, and Mr. Bush felt compelled to respond that he has a brother who is Catholic.

Mr. Bush has said Mr. McCain's tax-cut plan, targeted to lower taxpayers, resembles Mr. Clinton's in that respect but is even smaller. Mr. McCain has said Mr. Bush "twists the truth" like the president. Democrats smiled.

But what some saw as the tarnishing of the party's image by one of its presidential nomination seekers and his overt appeal to Democrats elicits a combination of sarcasm and irony in some Republicans.

"What rift?" said C. Boyden Gray, who was White House counsel for President Bush. "George W. Bush has won the Republican vote in the [open-to-all] Republican primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina and apparently in Michigan. Bush is losing only to Democrats and independents who vote in our primaries. So I don't know what the rift is.

"If McCain takes the nomination, I suppose most people [in the Republican Party] will close ranks and support him. It is entirely possible, however, that they will do that with less enthusiasm than they would for Governor Bush," Mr. Gray said.

Cindy Costa, a Republican National Committee member from South Carolina, sees what is unfolding in the harsh confrontations on the Republican side as boding ill for her party.

"The contentiousness of the Bush-McCain division is not good," she said. "You know, a 'house divided against itself' and all that. What you are seeing is a liberal attempt to take over our party by having Democrats determine our nominee."

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