- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2000

DETROIT A reinvigorated George W. Bush swept across Michigan yesterday, promoting his conservative agenda and promising to stamp out an organized Democratic effort to undermine his campaign in tomorrow's Republican presidential primary.

"There's something in the air here in Michigan," Mr. Bush, the Texas governor, shouted over the din of hundreds of screaming supporters at a local college. "Wait till you see what happens here Tuesday night."

A poll released this weekend by the Detroit News showed Mr. Bush has moved into a statistical tie with his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, only a week after polls had Mr. Bush trailing by nine points.

Mr. McCain yesterday harshly attacked the Texas governor, particularly focusing on his claim to be a reformer, a day after Mr. McCain's stinging loss in South Carolina.

"We're not going to let you get away with that, pal," Mr. McCain told reporters on his campaign bus as he began campaigning in Michigan. "You're not a reformer. Anybody who believes you're a reformer believes in the tooth fairy."

Mr. McCain, who had sworn off personal attacks in South Carolina, sharpened his rhetoric at events throughout Michigan. He accused Mr. Bush of wanting to perpetuate a corrupt campaign finance system in Washington and caving into legislators who want to pack the federal budget with unnecessary spending.

"Until Governor Bush can identify one spending cut, one corporate loophole he would close, he cannot call himself a reformer," he said.

Bush campaign aides said privately yesterday that they were not actively responding to Mr. McCain's latest attacks because they believe in a political adage when an opponent is melting down, don't help him.

Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes did say that she believes voters in Michigan "will factor in" Mr. McCain's diatribes. "One of the hallmarks of a leader is how you handle both success and adversity," she said. "They're looking for someone to be a steady president."

Mr. Bush said he won in South Carolina because "I laid out a positive agenda." Fresh from his 11-point win over Mr. McCain, Mr. Bush boomed his message of tax cuts and ending the Clinton-Gore era with a vigor not seen before. And the crowd responded wildly, drowning him out several times with chants of "We want Bush!"

"I was going to answer some questions, but you're too rowdy," Mr. Bush teased.

He told reporters a few minutes later: "There's a sense in this state, the same sense I felt in South Carolina. On a Sunday afternoon, we had a major turnout. That's not easy to do."

As he made his final two-day push to capture Michigan's 58 delegates, the biggest prize to date, Mr. Bush also was confronting a concerted effort by Democrats to get out the vote for Mr. McCain and deliver a slap in the face to Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Republican who supports Mr. Bush.

Geoffrey Fieger, who gained fame as the attorney for Dr. Jack Kevorkian and lost to Mr. Engler in the 1998 gubernatorial race, has been airing 60-second radio ads in Michigan this weekend that ridicule the efforts of Mr. Bush on tort reform. Mr. Fieger supports Mr. McCain.

On the Bush campaign jet yesterday, Mr. Engler dismissed Mr. Fieger's effort as bizarre.

"Usually when he touches something, he breaks it," Mr. Engler said.

Mr. Fieger told the Detroit News this weekend that he actually hopes his move backfires and helps Mr. Bush, because he believes Vice President Al Gore would ultimately benefit in November.

"I would prefer to see Bush nominated because he'll be beaten badly by Al Gore," Mr. Fieger said.

Bush campaign officials reported that Democrats were distributing leaflets in Detroit yesterday urging Democrats to vote for Mr. McCain in Michigan's open primary. Mr. McCain's support has come mainly from independents and Democrats, but the extent of the leaflet effort could not be determined yesterday.

A Democratic state representative, Lamar Lemmons, also has been calling on pastors in Detroit and elsewhere to urge their parishioners in Sunday sermons to vote for Mr. McCain as an affront to Mr. Engler, whom Democrats feel has ignored blacks in the state.

In Mr. McCain's first speech of the day yesterday, at a conference center in Livonia, he mentioned "reform" dozens of times and specifically mentioned Mr. Bush frequently, a name that was almost completely absent from his speeches in South Carolina.

Mr. McCain denied, however, that he is engaging in an indirect form of negative campaigning or that he is motivated by bitterness over the big margin of defeat in South Carolina.

"We are defining differences between us," he said. "I intend to continue."

Mr. McCain returned to anti-Bush themes that he used successfully in New Hampshire. He accused Mr. Bush of targeting "the top 1 percent, wealthiest Americans" with his tax-cut plan.

"I don't think Bill Gates needs a tax cut, but I think you and your parents do," he told a crowd at Michigan State University.

Mr. McCain also adopted a theme used by Steve Forbes, who dropped out of the race a week ago, questioning Mr. Bush's fiscal conservatism by pointing out that state spending surged during his two terms as governor of Texas.

"That's not conservative, that's not a reformer," he told reporters.

On CNN's "Late Edition," Mr. McCain said Mr. Bush "is no more a reformer than I'm an astronaut."

He also mocked Mr. Bush's efforts to toughen his campaign after New Hampshire. "George Bush used to call himself a compassionate conservative; now he calls himself a reformer with results," Mr. McCain said sarcastically. "Pretty soon, he will be calling himself a Texan with tenacity."

Mr. Bush, who appeared on four news talk shows yesterday, discussed his "record of reform," including educational and welfare reforms he has carried out in Texas. "The people want somebody who can come from outside of Washington to reform the schools, reform the military, keep the economy growing, make sure we have a Medicare system. And that's exactly what I'm going to continue talking about," Mr. Bush told CBS.

Mr. Bush rejected a suggestion by Rep. Peter T. King of New York that the Texas governor tacitly endorsed bias against Catholics by speaking at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, an institution that has been accused of such prejudice. Mr. King yesterday switched his support from Mr. Bush to Mr. McCain.

"Catholic-bashing, I don't believe in that," Mr. Bush said in a state with a heavy Catholic constituency. "My little brother, Jeb, is Catholic. Is Mr. King suggesting I'm anti-Catholic? My record is a lot different than Mr. King thinks."

Mr. McCain campaigns in Michigan again today, then flies home tonight to Arizona, which also holds its primary tomorrow. The senator expects to win his home state, but he will campaign there to avoid the embarrassing prospect of losing on his own turf.

Joyce Howard Price contributed to this report in Washington.

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