- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2000

COLUMBIA, S.C. Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain last night traded angry charges about their bruising campaign tactics four days before South Carolina's pivotal Republican primary.

Mr. Bush told Mr. McCain he crossed the line when he aired a television ad that likened him to President Clinton.

"We can disagree on issues and debate issues, but whatever you do, don't equate my integrity and trustworthiness to Bill Clinton," Mr. Bush told the Arizona senator during a 90-minute debate that aired live on CNN.

"That's about as low as you can get in a Republican primary."

Mr. McCain said the Texas governor should have rebuked Bush supporter J. Thomas Burch Jr., chairman of the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition, which Mr. McCain called "a fringe group."

Mr. Burch stood beside Mr. Bush at a South Carolina rally and accused Mr. McCain of abandoning America's veterans.

I don't know if you can understand this, George, but that really hurt. That really hurt," Mr. McCain said, glaring at Mr. Bush, who sat about three feet away. "You should be ashamed. You should be ashamed."

"Yeah," Mr. Bush said quietly.

"You should be ashamed of sponsoring an event with that man there who had attacked your own father," Mr. McCain continued.

"The man was not speaking for me … if you want to know my opinion about you, John, you served our country strongly and admirably," Mr. Bush said. But the Texas governor refused to specifically disavow Mr. Burch.

But he then turned the tables on Mr. McCain, noting that one of his supporters, former Sen. Warren Rudman, New Hampshire Republican, had called members of the Christian Coalition bigots.

"He's entitled to his opinion," replied Mr. McCain, who also did not disavow his ally.

Mr. McCain added that he had ordered his staff days ago to stop running all negative ads.

But the Texas governor waved a printed flier accusing Mr. Bush of threatening the solvency of Social Security that had turned up on a car windshield earlier in the day.

"That is not by my campaign," said Mr. McCain.

"It says 'Paid for by John McCain,' " was Mr. Bush's instant rejoinder.

Mr. McCain said his campaign prepared the flier, but no longer uses it because he has forsworn negative campaigning.

Former Ambassador Alan Keyes, sitting between the front-runners, said Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain are mired in irrelevant games while he offers a "substantive conservative" approach.

"Is this the kind of pointless squabbling we really want them to see," he said to the television audience watching CNN's broadcast. The studio audience of 400 members of the South Carolina Business & Industry Political Education Committee broke into applause.

Mr. Keyes said Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain are "half-hearted" Republicans and he is the best candidate to carry the party's message in November.

Each of the candidates took potshots at President Clinton.

Mr. Bush said not many parents are naming their sons after Mr. Clinton. Mr. McCain said "Clinton fatigue" will be a factor in the fall, adding that Vice President Al Gore "can run but he can't hide."

Mr. Bush said he would be the party's best standard-bearer because he is a proven leader and because he could carry Texas in a general election. Mr. McCain said he he can appeal to independent voters and can reconstitute Ronald Reagan's governing coalition.

Mr. Keyes rebuked Mr. Bush for only criticizing "bigotry" when prompted by audience questions in an appearance at Bob Jones University, a South Carolina school that bans interracial dating.

"Which is the better leader, you ask me," Mr. Keyes said.

Mr. McCain said that if he had been invited to speak at the school, he would have derided its interracial dating ban, saying: "It's stupid. It's idiotic and it's incredibly cruel."

The three remaining Republican contenders also sparred on abortion and on taxes.

Mr. Bush said he would set a goal as president that in America, "every child born and unborn" be "protected in law and welcomed into life."

Mr. McCain said Mr. Bush contradicted himself. He said Mr. Bush supports exceptions in cases of rape and incest, even as he backs the pro-life plank in the Republican platform, which specifies no such exceptions.

Mr. Bush said his $483 billion five-year tax cut would help Americans across the economic spectrum. He said Mr. McCain's $240 billion tax cut plan reflects a "Washington, D.C. approach" of targeted tax cuts.

The high-stakes debate began with a mild exchange about foreign policy.

Mr. Bush said last night that Mr. Clinton "sent a chilling signal" by befriending China at America's expense.

America must redefine China as a competitor that is willing to spread weapons of mass destruction around the world, Mr. Bush said. Mr. McCain called Mr. Clinton's China policy "one of the signal failures of this administration" and said he would institute a policy of "rogue-state rollback" to fight the spread of such weapons.

Mr. Keyes said he would "restore respect for the national sovereignty of our country" by withdrawing America from the World Trade Organization.

The debate, moderated by Larry King, marked the first meeting of the three men since Mr. McCain's blowout win Feb. 1 in the New Hampshire primary.

Saturday's primary comes at a critical point in the Republican presidential nomination race.

If Mr. Bush wins, he will have won Iowa, Delaware and South Carolina and his New Hampshire loss becomes an aberration.

But if the Arizona senator beats Mr. Bush, the Texas governor may be unable to stop Mr. McCain's momentum Feb. 22 in Michigan and in Arizona.

South Carolina's 2 million eligible voters do not register by party. As in New Hampshire, independents can vote in and could prove decisive in Saturday's primary.

Mr. Bush, eyeing Mr. McCain's reform-minded supporters, pushed his own version of campaign finance reform yesterday at an appearance in Irmo.

Mr. Bush wants to ban "soft money" contributions by unions and by corporations, but not by individuals.

"I think one of the things that America wants to know is that ideas and votes are made based upon principle, not on influence," Mr. Bush said.

Mr. McCain says such a partial measure is insufficient.

"The governor's proposal is a camouflage and a joke because it allows soft-money contributions from individuals," said Mr. McCain while campaigning yesterday in Columbia. "How can you call it reform?"

He kept up the attack during last night's debate, calling the exception for individual contributions "a billion-dollar loophole."

One provision of the Bush plan appears aimed at Mr. McCain. Mr. Bush wants to halt lobbyists' contributions to lawmakers during a congressional session.

Mr. Bush has criticized last week's McCain fund-raiser at the Willard Hotel in Washington, in which corporate lobbyists donated thousands of dollars to Mr. McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

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