- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2000

Arizona Sen. John McCain's campaign speedboat appears to have sprung leaks.

His meteoric rise in the polls has fallen off in recent days. As the news media has delved into his past, his image as a champion of campaign finance reform and uncompromising opponent of special interests has been questioned.

The Arizona senator is also being castigated by fellow Republicans for saying Texas Gov. George W. Bush's tax-cut plan benefits the rich a charge that echoes criticism by President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and other Democrats, who have leveled the same complaint at nearly every Republican tax-cut proponent.

"John McCain, who's a friend of mine, has done a has made a big mistake," said Jack Kemp, author of the 25 percent across-the-board tax cut enacted in the first year of President Reagan's term.

"He has suggested that cutting tax rates across the board is somehow bad for the economy, that it's only going to go, as [former Democratic New York] Gov. [Mario] Cuomo would say, to the rich," Mr. Kemp said yesterday on a television show.

Mr. McCain, once regarded as a paradigm of virtue and accessibility by many in the media who follow him, also is facing criticism on everything from his sense of humor to his statement Sunday that the Confederate flag represents to some people bigotry and slavery, alienating Republican voters in South Carolina.

A 30-second radio ad critical of his jokes about sufferers of Alzheimer's disease and about the elderly began running yesterday in New Hampshire. The ad is not by one of his Republican presidential nomination rivals, but by the New New Hampshire anti-abortion group, Citizens for Life.

The 30-second radio ad cites an Associated Press story and quotes Mr. McCain as once joking that the "one thing about Alzheimer's is you get to hide your own Easter eggs." The ad also says he "once joking referred to the Leisure World home for senior citizens as 'Seizure World.' "

In South Carolina, a similar group is running two separate radio spot ads urging pro-life voters not to vote for him because, the ads claim, he has flip-flopped on abortion.

Even in his home state, Mr. McCain came under attack yesterday from the Sierra Club, which began airing TV and radio ads in Phoenix saying the senator "opposes plans to protect wild areas" in the state.

Mr. McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has had to deal with reporters' question about having interceded with federal regulators on behalf of major contributors. To avoid a slow leak of such accusations, he has released hundreds of documents showing that he wrote letters on behalf of more than a dozen contributors over the past three years. The letters went to federal regulators that his committee oversees.

Some Republicans say all this has thrown his campaign off stride, and that it was almost destined to happen because Mr. McCain is running for the Republican nomination by taking a variety of "un-Republican" stands.

"Campaign finance reform is a major negative with most Republican primary electorates," said Witt Ayers, an Atlanta-based Republican pollster who is not working for any of the Republican presidential nomination contenders.

McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky acknowledges that the campaign "did spend time talking about the letters." But Mr. Opinsky maintains that the standing of his boss in the race with Mr. Bush and the other contenders "remains largely unchanged."

Evidence, however, is mixed as to whether the turmoil Mr. McCain has encountered is taking its toll on his chances for winning the all-important Feb. 1 New Hampshire Republican primary and then going on to take South Carolina's Feb. 19 primary.

An American Research Group tracking poll in New Hampshire conducted over three days shows Mr. Bush has overtaken Mr. McCain and is now ahead 35 percent to 31 percent.

But independent pollster John Zogby said yesterday that while "news reporting and pundits to the contrary, McCain appears to be gaining in New Hampshire," according to his latest poll to be released later today for Reuters news agency.

"We still remain tied or slightly ahead of Bush in New Hampshire and we are ahead in Arizona and continue to close in on him in South Carolina," said Mr. Opinsky.

Mr. Bush, who leads the the rest of the Republican presidential nomination field in national polls, was behind Mr. McCain by 3 percentage points in the tracking poll earlier last week New Hampshire.

A Boston Herald/WCVB-TV poll conducted by RKM Research and Communications on Jan. 6-7 has Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush in a statistical dead heat.

The Herald quotes RKM pollster Kelly Myers as saying that although Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain "remain tied, the dynamic of the race seems to have turned and is now in Bush's favor."

Mr. McCain, far behind Mr. Bush in fund raising and in national polls from the beginning, has believed he could beat the odds by beating Mr. Bush in the earliest major primary state: New Hampshire. Its independents can vote in the Republican and Democratic primaries and polls and interviews show that independents approve of Mr. McCain's campaign finance stand even though most Republicans view it with skepticism, even abhorrence.

But Republican analysts like Mr. Ayers say even in New Hampshire, Mr. McCain's status as a Vietnam War hero is more important than his reformist agenda.

"McCain has done very well in New Hampshire because of his compelling personal story, not because of any issues he promoting," Mr. Ayers said.

But his playing the "class warfare card" against Mr. Bush on tax cuts is what has surprised many Republicans the most.

"McCain's trying to out-Gore us in South Carolina," said Carter Eskew, South Carolina spokesman for Mr. Bush's presidential nomination campaign campaign.

"McCain, in fact, is stealing a page from the Al Gore liberal play book, but you don't score points in the South Carolina primary that way," he said. "You lose points."

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