- The Washington Times - Monday, February 28, 2000

Sen. John McCain's so-called straight talk express has suffered an untimely detour in recent days. Eager to show off his self-styled Reagan Republican credentials in advance of Tuesday's key presidential primary in Virginia, the senator and his allies found themselves scrambling to distance themselves from attack ads smearing George W. Bush as an anti-Catholic bigot.
The ads, which ran in Michigan prior to the senator's primary victory there, said the governor had spoken at a private institution in South Carolina known as Bob Jones University, where conservative Protestants allegedly made anti-Catholic statements by attacking the pope and more. John McCain, the ad continued, had criticized this kind of bigotry. Mr. Bush, who was seeking political support from the school, had not.
The obvious implication was that Mr. Bush himself was an anti-Catholic bigot, an odd accusation to make against a man whose brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is Roman Catholic. It's also not the sort of thing one typically hears from those claiming to have inherited Ronald Reagan's mantle.
The McCain campaign was in no hurry to disabuse Michigan's many Catholic voters of the notion that the governor was a bigot. Indeed, McCain ally and former New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman was still playing the religion card as recently as Sunday. By "standing on the platform at Bob Jones, that preaches hatred," Mr. Rudman explained to listeners of "Meet the Press," "it seems to me that Governor Bush had some obligation not to, by silence, endorse their beliefs." The fact that a key McCain ally, South Carolina Rep. Lindsey Graham, received an honorary degree at Bob Jones University, did not trouble him. Apparently some "endorsements" are all right.
Mr. McCain has since explained that he never meant to suggest Mr. Bush was a bigot, but his problems don't end there. At the time the ads were running, reporters asked the senator whether his campaign had anything to do with them. He denied even knowing about them, much less paying for them. But under repeated questioning, he subsequently acknowledged that as a matter of fact his campaign was responsible for the ads. He attempted to excuse his initial misstatements by saying the ad had been mischaracterized to the point that he didn't recognize it as his own. Mr. Rudman didn't seem to have any trouble recognizing it, and neither would anyone else. It is just this kind of verbal hopscotch that Americans dislike about President Clinton. It doesn't sound any better coming from John McCain.
Now if Mr. McCain were serious about running a Reaganite campaign, he wouldn't be trying to put words in the governor's that have no bearing on that claim. He would be talking, for example, about cutting taxes. But Mr. McCain prefers to talk about reducing the national debt and rewriting Mr. Reagan's legacy accordingly. "I think that Ronald Reagan," he said, "in this particular time would probably or will probably support the kind of proposal that I'm making." Cokie Roberts of "This Week," could hardly believe it. Ronald Reagan, the great tax cutter? she asked.
Likewise a Reaganite Republican would be talking about reducing government regulation. So what about the controversy over off-shore oil drilling near California? Cokie Roberts asked. Mr. McCain said he would oppose such drilling notwithstanding higher oil prices. That doesn't sound like Ronald Reagan to anyone but Mr. McCain.
Under the circumstances, it's not surprising the senator has had to count on support from Democrats and independents to stay in the race against Mr. Bush. If he wants support from Republicans, he's going to have to campaign like one. Smear tactics are no substitute.

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