- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2000

The wheels have come off Sen. John McCain's "Straight Talk Express" as his campaign finds itself in disarray over a mounting backlash against his diatribe on Christian conservatives and swirling questions about the candidate's truthfulness.

Over the last few days, Mr. McCain has:

* Apologized for comments to the media that Christian conservatives, including the Revs. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, are "forces of evil" after Christian conservatives in Virginia turned out in droves to vote against him.

* Remained silent over reports by a former campaign adviser who quit as Mr. McCain continued to hammer Mr. Bush's visit to Bob Jones University that he lied about his involvement in attempts to make his own campaign speech at the school.

* Interceded in an internal campaign staff squabble that led to reports his communications director had been fired for publicly criticizing his boss's initial decision to bypass an important California debate today.

* Suffered a stinging rebuke by Gary Bauer, his most prominent supporter among conservative leaders, for his diatribes against Mr. Robertson and Mr. Falwell.

* Engaged in a fierce on-air argument with radio talk-show host Michael Reagan in which the former president's son hung up on the angry candidate, who refused to talk about anything but Mr. Robertson and bigotry.

* Admitted orchestrating a series of telephone calls to voters that implied Texas Gov. George W. Bush is an "anti-Catholic bigot." Mr. McCain had steadfastly denied being behind the calls.

* Demeaned voters in Virginia and Washington state after being trounced in both states, saying, "Most people in Super Tuesday states are not going to be affected by what happened in Virginia or Washington, to tell you the truth."

The campaign's erratic steering has grown more apparent as the two candidates approach Super Tuesday on March 7. Mr. McCain's gambit Monday against religious conservatives was targeted at voters in New York and California the two big prizes that day but polls show Mr. Bush has closed a huge gap in New York among Roman Catholics and leads by more than 20 points in California, where Mr. McCain has actually lost ground.

California state Sen. Chuck Pooschigian said Mr. McCain's campaign is "drowning in its own vitriol."

"The bitterness and uncontrolled angers being demonstrated by him and his campaign here in California suggests to me that something is going very wrong," Mr. Pooschigian said.

He said Mr. McCain in an appearance Wednesday embarrassed his own supporters by appearing to praise Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and the Clinton administration's water policies in the state. "That didn't sit well with farmers here. How could a campaign that has not gone to pieces not know that?" he said.

Mr. McCain's temper was also on display in a contentious interview late Tuesday night with Mr. Reagan, whose radio show is aired on 220 stations. Mr. McCain sidestepped questions about issues and repeatedly tried to return the discussion to Mr. Robertson and bigotry.

Mr. Reagan curtly ended the call by saying, "Mr. McCain, goodbye… . All he wants to talk about is Pat Robertson and bigotry," he then told listeners. "He doesn't want to talk about education. Man does not have the temperament to be president of the United States."

Mr. McCain has belittled Mr. Bush for his visit to Bob Jones University in South Carolina, which bans interracial dating and has been connected to anti-Catholic rhetoric. But ABCNews.com reported yesterday that Mr. McCain considered a visit to the Greenville school.

The Web site said Terry Haskins, who was the McCain campaign's South Carolina co-chairman and is speaker pro-tem of the state's House of Delegates, confirmed that "negotiations took place around the same time Bush delivered his address at the school" and that "the national headquarters tentatively signed off on the idea, schedule permitting."

Mr. Haskins added that the visit was to build support for the South Carolina primary and not to denounce the university's policies on race or its anti-Catholicism a lapse for which he has derided Mr. Bush. ABC also quoted him as saying Mr. McCain had hoped to speak there not to make any statement on race or religious bigotry.

"There were a lot of primary voters up there and we thought it would be good to be seen and not heard," Mr. Haskins told ABC News.

Rep. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican supporter of Mr. McCain's, had led the negotiations with the university. Mr. Graham holds an honorary degree from Bob Jones.

No one from the McCain campaign returned phone calls seeking comment on the report.

As for his role in a telephone campaign dubbed a "Catholic voter alert," Mr. McCain, after days of denying involvement, finally acknowledged being behind the calls.

After Mr. Bush had defeated Mr. McCain in a bitter South Carolina primary, aides drafted a telephone script, bought lists of Catholic voters and contracted with a telemarketing company to call 24,000 Roman Catholic households in Michigan.

In a television interview on Feb. 25, Mr. McCain said he had personally approved the calls. But two days before, Mr. McCain was asked "Have you ordered that those phone calls be stopped?" Mr. McCain replied, "I didn't have anything to do with them to start with."

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said Mr. McCain's statement last night was clearly at odds with what he had said earlier.

"This startling revelation," he said, "undercuts the entire premise of John McCain's campaign that is, straight talk and that he will never tell a lie."

In another misstep, Mr. McCain, musing with reporters on his bus, the "Straight Talk Express," said that Mr. Robertson and Mr. Falwell are "forces of evil." Yesterday, he issued an apology.

"While I disagree with the political message and tactics of Reverends Falwell and Robertson, Mr. Jones and other self-proclaimed leaders of the Christian right, I do not consider them evil, and I regret that my flip remark may have mistakenly created that impression."

The candidate suffered another blow yesterday when Mr. Bauer, a Christian conservative who gave up his run for the presidency last month and endorsed Mr. McCain, condemned him for assaults on Mr. Robertson and Mr. Falwell.

"As a Reagan Republican and a man of faith who has endorsed Senator John McCain's candidacy for president, I must in the strongest possible terms repudiate his unwarranted, ill-advised and divisive attacks on certain religious leaders," Mr. Bauer told The Washington Times.

Mr. Bauer yesterday called on Mr. McCain "to retract his recent statements and apologize to Pat Robertson and the Reverend Jerry Falwell, as well as to all men and women of faith. Comparing these respected conservative leaders to the demagogic race-baiter Al Sharpton and the anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan was unfounded and unwise."

As for communications director Dan Schnur, Mr. McCain stepped in to mediate a dispute among top campaign staff. Mr. Schnur publicly called for Mr. McCain to attend in person the Los Angeles debate. The candidate who at first said he would not attend at all eventually decided to participate by satellite from St. Louis.

A senior campaign official, speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, told reporters early yesterday that Mr. Schnur would be leaving the campaign as early as March 8, the day after Super Tuesday.

That was news to Mr. Schnur, who said he had no plans to quit. "If I'm leaving, it's definitely not by mutual decision," Mr. Schnur said.

Aides said the struggle over Mr. Schnur reflected increased tension among top campaign staffers after a disappointing loss Tuesday in Virginia. Mr. McCain interceded last night to smooth things over and to ask Mr. Schnur to stay on.

"We squabble a lot," the Arizona senator said, dismissing the drama.

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