- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2000

Sen. John McCain Thursday acknowledged that his criticism of religious conservatives has hurt his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
"I want to be back on the issues and stay on the issues," Mr. McCain told reporters in Los Angeles who peppered him with questions about his remarks earlier in the week. "Perhaps we haven't done enough of that."
He talked to reporters during a a tough week in which he acknowledged orchestrating phone calls implying rival George W. Bush harbors "anti-Catholic bigotry"; apologized for calling the Revs. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell "forces of evil"; fell mute but did not deny reports that he had sought to arrange a visit to Bob Jones University, for which he has hammered Mr. Bush; and was rebuked by Gary Bauer, his most prominent supporter among conservative leaders.
Bob Jones University Thursday confirmed reports it was approached by Mr. McCain's campaign to arrange a visit. One of his top South Carolina supporters said the matter has given him "a terrible case of heartburn."
"I have heartburn with a capital H," Rep. Mark Sanford, South Carolina Republican and a McCain supporter, told The Washington Times. "This is not the campaign I signed up for. I signed up to be a part of reforming government, Social Security, federal spending, campaign finance.
"I didn't sign up to be a part of this bizarre wordplay we've had over the last few days."
Mr. Sanford, together with Rep. Lindsey Graham, his fellow South Carolina Republican, spearheaded Mr. McCain's campaign in the state. Mr. Graham, who holds an honorary degree from Bob Jones University, was often at Mr. McCain's side and was a surrogate speaker in New Hampshire.
Mr. McCain originally said that he had not been invited to speak at the university, and Mr. Bush and Alan Keyes had been invited.
But a university spokeswoman said Thursday that the school does not issue invitations to candidates to speak. "The local campaign organizations of the national candidates contact the university if they want to speak," the spokeswoman told The Washington Times.
"That was the case with both Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush," she said. She asked not to be identified but works in the university's press office with spokesman Jonathan Pait.
Asked specifically whether Mr. McCain's organization attempted to set up a speaking date for the Arizona senator, she replied: "Yes." She said the McCain appearance "fell through because of a schedule conflict" of the senator's, not the school.
No one from the McCain campaign has yet acknowledged that they approached the school to arrange an appearance. Both Mr. Graham and South Carolina House Speaker pro tem Terry Haskins, who resigned as Mr. McCain's state campaign co-chairman, denied they had done so.
Mr. Graham said he called the school, "But the purpose of the call was not to set up a speaking engagement at Bob Jones for John McCain," Mr. Graham said. "I neither led or participated in any such negotiations."
Although Mr. McCain acknowledged that his criticism of religious conservatives has hurt his campaign, he continued his attacks on the two religious leaders, saying they represent the "politics of exclusion."
He grew testy when he was asked whether he was not implicitly excluding religious conservatives from his campaign with his criticism of the Christian Coalition and other conservative religious groups. "The people who support Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell should reject them," he said, because those voters "share my values."
He declined again to apologize for his strong condemnation of Mr. Robertson and Mr. Falwell, whom he called "agents of intolerance" on Monday, and compared them to the leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, who has described Judaism as "a gutter religion" and whites as a "subhuman" species, and Harlem activist Al Sharpton, discredited in the Tawana Brawley hoax.
He finally apologized Wednesday for a remark, which he said was in jest, suggesting that the religious leaders were the "forces of evil." That was the remark that was rebuked by Mr. Bauer.
The furor followed McCain losses in Tuesday primaries in Virginia and Washington and a caucus in North Dakota and as he turned his attention to the crucial "Super Tuesday" contests next week. Mr. Bush won those solid victories with the support of religious voters.
Mr. McCain declined to elaborate on his apology for the "forces of evil" remarks. "I pretty well clarified what I have to say," he said. "I don't have much more to say about that."
In Thursday night's Republican debate in Los Angeles, Mr. McCain sought to brush the matter aside, saying he wanted to focus on issues and "stop the squabbling."
Mr. McCain disputed reports that his campaign is reeling, telling reporters in St. Louis, where he went from Los Angeles, that the campaign is "doing fine."
Mr. McCain made it clear he sees next week's Super Tuesday showdowns, when a dozen states will select nearly half of the 1,034 delegates needed to win the nomination, as the defining events of the campaign.
"I think we're going to find out everything next Tuesday," Mr. McCain told reporters on his campaign bus. Still, he sounded as if he is mentally prepared for bad news.
Mr. McCain briefly even moderated his criticism of Mr. Bush. "Governor Bush is a friend of mine. He comes from a good family," Mr. McCain said. "If he is the nominee of the party, I will support him and seek to help him become the president of the United States."
But he then blamed Mr. Bush for the sharp tone of the campaign and said it could hurt the party. "I would not have run the campaign Governor Bush has run," he said. "I think it has the potential to hurt the party and to hurt his candidacy."

Sean Scully reported from Los Angeles and St. Louis. Ralph Z. Hallow reported from Washington.

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