GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. Texas Gov. George W. Bush last night accused Arizona Sen. John McCain of proposing paltry tax relief as the Republican presidential candidates debated in a key industrial state.
Today Mr. McCain will detail his five-year $240 billion tax cut that mostly aids lower- and middle-income Americans. His plan is roughly half the size of Mr. Bush’s proposal to cut taxes $483 billion across the board over five years.
“I believe everybody ought to get a tax cut,” Mr. Bush told Mr. McCain during a 90-minute debate at Calvin College two weeks before the Iowa caucus and six weeks before the pivotal Republican primary in Michigan.
Mr. Bush said he wants to both cut the top rates and make sure people “on the outskirts of poverty” get tax cuts. A lesser tax cut leaves Congress too much money to spend, he said.
“My plan has been called risky by voices out of Washington,” Mr. Bush said. “In my judgment, what’s risky is to leave a lot of unspent money in Washington, because guess what’s going to happen? It’s going to be spent on bigger federal government.”
Mr. McCain countered that the Bush tax-cut plan favors the rich.
“I’m not sure we need to give two-thirds of that tax cut money to the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans,” Mr. McCain said.
“For us to put all of the surplus into tax cuts, I think is not a conservative effort. I think it’s a mistake.”
Turning to Mr. Bush, he said, “Your tax [cut] plan over the next five years not only spends all the surplus, it spends $20 billion in addition to that.”
Michigan Gov. John Engler, an early supporter of Mr. Bush, sees his state as a possible fire wall for the Texas governor. Michigan could halt Mr. McCain’s momentum if he beats Mr. Bush in New Hampshire Feb. 1 and in South Carolina Feb. 19.
Some of the debate’s sharpest exchanges pitted magazine publisher Steve Forbes against Mr. Bush. Mr. Forbes stood behind his television ad that accuses Mr. Bush of breaking a 1994 pledge by proposing a sales tax boost in 1997 as governor of Texas.
“A pledge should not be made as a trinket to win an election,” Mr. Forbes said.
Mr. Bush said voters should assess his record, which features the largest tax cut in his state’s history.
“What were the results?” Mr. Bush said. “The results were that people from all walks of life received a significant tax cut.”
“I am a tax-cutting person,” he said. “I know how to get it done.”
Mr. Forbes later prodded the Texas governor on abortion.
“Let’s take a dream ride for a moment,” Mr. Forbes said, “let’s pretend that you get the nomination.”
“I accept that premise,” Mr. Bush put in.
Mr. Forbes asked whether he would take three pledges to preserve the pro-life plank in the Republican platform, to choose only pro-life judges and to pick a pro-life running mate.
Mr. Bush said he would pick “a vice president who can be a president” and judges who will not legislate from the bench. “I will work to keep the Republican Party pro-life,” he added.
That was hedge, not a pledge, Mr. Forbes said.
“You may not like the answer, but that’s the answer,” Mr. Bush told him.
The Texas governor led the Republican field in Michigan with 50 percent of the vote to 25 percent for Mr. McCain in an Epic/MRA poll released Dec. 17. The other hopefuls Mr. Forbes, conservative activist Gary Bauer, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch and Alan Keyes, ex-ambassador to the U.N. Social and Economic Council, lag far behind.
The sharp exchanges in the debate, moderated by Tim Russert of NBC, reflected the high stakes in the front-loaded primary schedule. Primary and caucus voters in 31 states will cast ballots between Jan. 24 and March 14.
Mr. Bush, a former owner of baseball’s Texas Rangers said he supports Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig’s decision to order psychological testing for John Rocker.
A torrent of criticism has hit the Braves pitcher since he unleashed a tirade against blacks, foreigners and homosexuals in a recent Sports Illustrated article.
“This is a case of a fellow who needs help,” Mr. Bush said of the Braves pitcher. He added that Mr. Rocker is “a public person” who said “some incredibly offensive things.”
Mr. Bush said he wants to “usher in the responsibility era,” and he made a pointed reference to President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.
“Each of us must understand with certainty that we’re responsible for the decisions we make, and it starts, by the way, with having a president who behaves responsibly in the Oval Office.”
The Republican contenders criticized the Clinton administration for preparing to send Elian Gonzalez, a 6-year-old boy, back to his father in Cuba.
A Florida judge yesterday gave relatives in Miami temporary custody. The Republican candidates said the boy’s father should come to America to say freely whether Elian should return to Cuba.
“I’m not a betting man, but I’m willing to wager that if [Cuban President Fidel] Castro lets [the father] out he’s not going to be altogether too anxious to go back,” Mr. Keyes said. “That way the whole family can stay in freedom in America.”
“If this president knows what shame is,” he will not send the boy back to Cuba, Mr. Bauer said.
Mr. Bush added that he opposes trade with Cuba, saying the government of Mr. Castro would skim money from entrepreneurs.
Mr. Bauer said Mr. Bush had just made the case for taking away most-favored-nation trading status from China. The Texas governor said China is different because it has an emerging entrepreneurial class that America should back.
Mr. Keyes drew laughs when he said Internet screening software is not a First Amendment issue, but a parenting issue.
“My kids don’t have a right to free speech, and they don’t need to have it” until they get older, Mr. Keyes said.
Near the end of the debate, Mr. Bush bristled when Mr. Forbes, responding to an audience question, declined to stop running ‘negative’ ads. Mr. Forbes said his ad merely told the truth.
“I don’t mind debates,” Mr. Bush said. “I do mind Republicans tearing each other down. The mission is to pick the best person so we can capture the White House in the year 2000.”
Mr. McCain turned to Mr. Bush, shook the governor’s hand and vowed not to run any negative ads.