- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2000

LOS ANGELES Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain again sparred over anti-Catholicism and the Republican Party's ties to the religious right Thursday in their last debate before the crucial "Super Tuesday" showdown for the Republican nomination next week.

CNN analyst Jeff Greenfield noted that former Education Secretary William Bennett described Mr. McCain's comments about Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell as "intemperate" and "irresponsible." Mr. McCain, who participated via satellite from St. Louis, was asked if his temperament had again become an issue.

"I don't think it should be a source of worry," Mr. McCain said. "I respect Bill Bennett's views. I believe I've conducted [the campaign] with honor and dignity."

He said his campaign is attracting young people. "My temperament … is something they're able to look up to," Mr. McCain said.

Asked to defend his campaign's "Catholic voter alert" that warned voters in Michigan about Mr. Bush's appearance at Bob Jones University, Mr. McCain replied, "I think it was straight talk. I did not accuse him of being an anti-Catholic bigot. That was a factual statement and one that I stand by."

But Mr. Bush told Mr. McCain, "If you don't think those phone calls label me an anti-Catholic bigot, then you weren't paying attention to what your campaign was putting out."

Mr. McCain criticized Mr. Bush for failing to speak out on those issues while on the Bob Jones campus, and Mr. Bush made an apology for having failed to do that.

"I regret I did not speak out against that school's anti-Catholic bias. I missed an opportunity. I make no excuses," he said.

But, turning to Mr. McCain's campaign attacks, he said, "I do regret guilt by association. I do regret people labeling me" as bigoted, Mr. Bush said., "What I regret is the politics of smearing somebody's reputation. I don't appreciate it one bit."

The pair also sparred over campaign finance laws and their own electability Thursday night.

"America is looking for somebody to set a hopeful vision for the future," Mr. Bush said, arguing that he has the best conservative proposals on education and tax cuts. "People are looking for a fresh start after a season of cynicism in Washington, D.C."

Mr. McCain, whose campaign is reeling after losses to Mr. Bush in three states Tuesday, said in even tones that he wants to bring Republicans of all stripes to his campaign, even the Christian conservatives whose leaders he chastised earlier this week.

"Come to our proud conservative banner," Mr. McCain said. "I want all of you there. I'm positive Christian conservatives all over America will flock to that banner."

"Where I have differences with Falwell and Robertson is on the issue of President Clinton. I voted to impeach" the president, he said, but "I don't believe he's a murderer." That was a reference to the tapes circulated by some groups accusing Mr. Clinton of murder in the deaths of acquaintances, including Deputy White House Counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr.

The debate got off to a conciliatory start, with Mr. Bush saying, "I like (former Ambassador) Alan Keyes and John."

Mr. McCain, in turn, said he is a "loyal Republican" who only wants the party to win back the White House.

"The Republican Party is my home," Mr. McCain said. "No matter who our nominee is, I will support that nominee."

But Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain could not suppress their antagonism for the full hour, sniping at each other over campaign finance regulations and negative advertising.

Responding to Mr. Bush's statement that a recent Supreme Court decision upholding limits on campaign donations was a "liberal interpretation," Mr. McCain called the governor's answer "bizarre."

"Maybe that explains why there have been sleepovers at the governor's mansion," Mr. McCain said, referring to published reports that Mr. Bush has received substantial contributions from people who were his guests in Austin.

Mr. Bush replied testily, "These are my friends, John. These are my relatives."

He criticized Mr. McCain for pushing for a ban on so-called "soft money" donations while holding "dinners and fund-raisers in Washington, D.C.," and repeated his contention that Mr. McCain is "ringing that iron triangle [of lobbyists, money and politicians] like a dinner bell."

Said Mr. McCain moments later, "George, if I'm ringing it like a dinner bell, you've got both feet in the trough."

Mr. Keyes, who is trailing in the polls, said Democrats have "polluted" America's moral values and that issue alone will enable a Republican nominee to win in the general election.

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