- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2000

John McCain's bombastic, divisive presidential campaign is collapsing, choking on its own vitriol. The favorite of the national news media has won only two primaries so far, outside of his home state of Arizona. He faces perhaps decisive losses in tomorrow's Super Tuesday contests. His South Carolina co-chairman has resigned in anger over Mr. McCain's tactics. His communications director has left in disgust. Republican leaders are repudiating him for using the race and religious cards against George W. Bush.

Mr. McCain began his campaign with high-minded, high-sounding principles and goals, but it appears to be ending in a sordid, petulant, deeply negative and embittered war against his party. In the end, he campaigned the way he behaved in the Senate.

The senator's self-righteous, sanctimonious candidacy has been rejected by most of his Republican colleagues, many of whom have at one time or another been the target of his tongue-lashings and temper tantrums. Their private complaint is that "he fights with everyone." Now he is fighting against the Republican Party, tossing grenades at anyone who disagrees with him.

The GOP's establishment "is intent on trying to break me," the former Vietnam prisoner of war complained last week. Everyone in the party has turned against him, he says. "Governors, senators, congressmen, they're all against me."

He has been attacking the GOP's congressional establishment as if it were an alien force encamped on Capitol Hill, infuriating House and Senate leaders and many of his own supporters. As his quixotic campaign rapidly unraveled, he turned his full fury against religious conservatives and their leaders, calling them "the forces of evil."

The man who insists that he is a "proud Reagan conservative" has been wildly attacking the conservative wing of his party with the same epithet that Democrats hurled against Ronald Reagan: "right-wing extremists." It was as if the late New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller had come alive and was warring against Barry Goldwater and the Republican right wing.

As Mr. McCain's campaign goes into a tailspin, his rhetoric has become more strident and his campaign tactics more negative. In an appearance on the Michael Reagan program the night he lost the Virginia, South Dakota and Washington contests, he seemed to come unglued as he railed against Pat Robertson, forcing Mr. Reagan, a McCain sympathizer, to hang up on him on the air. "You lost my vote," Mr. Reagan said.

His combative candidacy reached its darkest depths last week with his furious attack on Mr. Robertson and Jerry Falwell the day before the Virginia primary. Mr. McCain's attack triggered a backlash among religious conservatives, who voted against him in an 8 to 1 ratio.

Mr. McCain knew that he had no hope of winning Virginia, so he gambled that an attack on the party's right wing would rally liberal Democrats and some independents to his cause on Super Tuesday. His campaign had sunk to the point where he was willing to attack and divide his party's political base to curry favor with the liberal political and media establishment.

The negative reaction to that speech was the last straw for Gary Bauer, who had endorsed him and campaigned for him after dropping out of the presidential race, and had even helped in drafting the address. Under fire from former allies like James Dobson, a dejected Mr. Bauer decided that Mr. McCain had gone too far.

"I must in the strongest possible terms repudiate Senator McCain's unwarranted, ill-advised and divisive attacks," Mr. Bauer said. "Such rhetoric serves only to divide the party and place into the hands of the liberal elite material to falsely depict Christian conservatives as intolerant extremists."

But perhaps no action riled Republican leaders more than the "Catholic Voter Alert" phone calls Mr. McCain's campaign made in Michigan that suggested Mr. Bush was anti-Catholic. He denied at first having anything to do with the telemarketing calls, then admitted paying for them, but said he wouldn't do it again.

At the National Governors' Association meeting here last week, Republican governors were incensed at Mr. McCain's attempt to play the religion card. "This is a man who said he would not lie. He did lie," said Michigan Gov. John Engler. "I think he's a hypocrite," Connecticut Gov. John Rowland told me. "The shine's coming off McCain."

Desperate to save his campaign, Mr. McCain decided to play the "Catholic Voter Alert" again in Washington, though with little effect. Potential McCain voters were turned off by his ugly tactics and Mr. Bush beat him there, too, in a state Mr. McCain had hoped to win.

As the battle for the soul of the party headed into Super Tuesday, which will likely move Mr. Bush to within striking range of the nomination, he has toughened his campaign rhetoric and is hitting back at his adversary with much more firepower. With Roman Catholic leaders by his side in the past week, Mr. Bush charged that Mr. McCain was trying to split the party along religious lines. "John ought to be ashamed of running that kind of campaign," he said.

Mr. McCain should do well in a few New England states tomorrow, but if Mr. Bush wins delegate-rich California, New York and Ohio, the senator's scorched-earth holy war against his own party will be all but finished.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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