- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2000

George W. Bush yesterday sharpened his criticism of John McCain, to thwart the Arizona senator's attempt to erode Mr. Bush's lead in the polls.

The traditional day of rest and worship was marked by fusillades of criticism, answered by fusillades of invective.

The Texas governor leads 2-to-1 nationally in the latest Newsweek poll, although last month's 20-point lead in South Carolina, the next primary state, has evaporated, according to a Time/CNN poll, into a virtual tie with Mr. McCain.

The governor and his campaign emerged from a weekend retreat in Austin, the Texas capital, with new determination to take on the senator more aggressively.

"We've got to show that Governor Bush can pick himself off the mat, dust off the blood, and go in there and fight hard for this nomination," campaign strategist Karl Rove said yesterday on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Mr. Rove hit hardest at Mr. McCain's stance as a reformer trying to wrestle politics out of the grasp of special interests. Mr. Rove said Mr. McCain, as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, commits the very offenses he rails against and noted he plans to hold a fund-raiser this week at which executives from companies affected by his committee's work will contribute to his coffers.

"He says one thing and does another," Mr. Rove said.

Mr. McCain, who appeared on ABC's "This Week," responded that the big corporations give him money precisely because they crave his reforms, which would put them out of the game. "They know clearly where I stand," he said. "They're tired of being dunned."

Mr. Rove said the Bush camp will aggressively fight any negative ads from Mr. McCain. Advertisements run by Mr. McCain in New Hampshire saying Mr. Bush's tax-cut plan failed to set aside enough money to protect the Social Security retirement program, they argue, distorted the governor's views.

"We let them go by in New Hampshire, and we suffered for it," Mr. Rove said in an interview on CNN. "We are going to aggressively set the record straight [in South Carolina]. He's running that same ad in South Carolina. It hurt us in New Hampshire. We're not going to let him get away with it in South Carolina."

The tougher Bush strategy quickly drew a little blood. Mike Murphy, a McCain strategist, called the Bush campaign new aggressiveness a sign of desperation. "There's a tremendous panic spasm going through the Republican Party establishment."

Mr. Rove replied that Mr. McCain took the gloves off first. "We do not intend to make the mistake we made in New Hampshire of letting the negative attacks by Senator McCain go unanswered," he said.

Mr. Rove further attempted to refute charges leveled in McCain television ads, which asserted that Mr. Bush isn't qualified to be president, that he doesn't set aside surplus government funds for the Social Security retirement program.

In fact, both candidates would set aside the $2 trillion surplus projected from Social Security payroll taxes over the next decade to be devoted exclusively for the retirement system. Mr. McCain said this surplus doesn't by itself cover the program's unfunded liability of $5 trillion to $7 trillion, so he proposes applying 62 percent of future surpluses in the government's general budget.

This surplus also estimated to be about $2 trillion is what Mr. McCain refers to when he says Bush devotes none of the "surplus" to the retirement program. Mr. Rove yesterday repeated the Bush campaign's response that half of the combined surplus, estimated at $4 trillion over 10 years, is going to Social Security.

Mr. Bush would use most of the other half to finance a tax cut of $483 billion over the first five years. That's roughly twice the size of Mr. McCain's proposed tax cut, and Mr. Bush touts the difference.

"Governor Bush is a successful governor of a big state who has pursued and enacted into law a reform agenda for education, welfare, civil justice, juvenile justice and tax cuts," Mr. Rove said. He sought to answer the TV ad that calls Mr. McCain the only Republican candidate ready to lead the country as president.

"Senator McCain is a 17-year Washington insider whose accomplishments are few and far between," Mr. Rove said, adding that Mr. McCain has "failed" to demonstrate he can lead by consensus.

Mr. McCain replied that Republicans favor his economic plan and that he's also attracted a wide base of supporters outside the party. After offering birthday wishes for ailing former President Ronald Reagan, who turned 89 yesterday, Mr. McCain said he's winning "Reagan Democrats" back to the Republican Party. Mr. McCain added he wants his support to reach still further across the political spectrum, "vegetarians and libertarians."

Mr. McCain yesterday drew a distinction between himself and Mr. Bush on abortion. He advocates changing the Republican platform's anti-abortion plank to include exceptions for incest, rape and protection of the life of the mother. Mr. Bush has said he personally supports those exceptions, though he would leave the abortion plank like all platform planks, honored mostly in the breach unchanged.

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