DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. Sen. John McCain, campaigning with former rival George W. Bush, said yesterday that the terrorist attack on the USS Cole was a sign of poor leadership by the Clinton-Gore administration.
“We just saw the tragedy that befell those brave young Americans on board the USS Cole, that we still live in a very dangerous world. This administration is conducting a photo-op foreign policy for which we may pay a very heavy price,” said Mr. McCain, a Vietnam veteran.
“We need a steady hand on the tiller. We need the kind of leadership that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney will provide this country so we cannot have those kinds of tragedies ever happen again,” the Arizona Republican said.
Two as yet unidentified men drove an explosives-laden boat into the U.S. destroyer on Oct. 12 as it refueled at the Yemeni port of Aden. The resulting explosion ripped a huge hole in the hull, killing 17 sailors and wounding 39 others.
The Navy is defending itself in hearings on Capitol Hill this week against critics who say it should not have allowed ships into ports in such an unstable and hostile region and who charge that the Navy security was lax. The Navy has said it did not deploy lookout boats around the Cole as it refueled, despite the fact that Yemen has a long history of hostility toward the United States and that tensions in the Middle East were at their highest point in many years.
Although he has been highly critical of the Clinton administration, saying it has neglected the armed forces, Mr. Bush has been very careful not to appear to capitalize on the Cole bombing. He put out several statements praising the sailors and promising retribution for the terrorists, but the campaign has never before directly linked the incident and the election.
Mr. Bush has made the military a key theme of his campaign, saying President Clinton, and by implication Vice President Al Gore, have overcommitted U.S. troops around the world at the same time they are making large cuts in the forces. He argues that morale is low and many units are not ready to fight.
“I will rebuild the military power of the United States to keep the peace,” Mr. Bush said yesterday.
He has also promised to withdraw U.S. troops from some of its overseas deployments, particularly the lengthy peacekeeping mission in the Balkans.
Mr. McCain, a former Navy fighter pilot who spent more than five years in a North Vietnamese prison, also sharply rebuked the Gore campaign for it’s efforts to rebut Mr. Bush’s long-standing criticism on the military issue. Mr. Gore and his running mate, Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, have argued that Mr. Bush is “running down the military” for political purposes.
“I was disappointed when my friend Joe Lieberman said we should not talk about the readiness of our military because of the men and women in the military I think it is unpatriotic not to talk about the unreadiness of our military,” Mr. McCain said. “We are not ready today we will be ready when George W. Bush is president of the United States.”
Mr. McCain, who also made military issues a central part of his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination, accused the Clinton administration of conducting a “feckless photo-op foreign policy for which we may pay a very heavy price in American blood and treasure.”
Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain, a former Florida resident, spent yesterday driving across Florida along with Mr. Bush’s brother, Gov. Jeb Bush. Although recent polls show Mr. Bush leading in Florida by as many as eight percentage points, the campaign has been forced to concentrate on the state because of an unexpectedly strong challenge by Mr. Gore.
The campaign had at first expected Florida to be solidly in the Bush column, but recent demographic changes have brought more Democrats and independents to Florida and diluted the formerly solidly Republican voting bloc.
Mr. Gore has also strongly criticized Mr. Bush’s Social Security and Medicare plans, vitally important issues for the state’s vast population of senior citizens, accounting for almost 20 percent of all Floridians.
Mr. Bush has promised to let younger workers invest a small part of their Social Security taxes in private accounts, but he has pledged to use the projected budget surplus to make sure the change does not force benefit cuts for senior citizens now receiving checks. Mr. Gore has heaped scorn on that plan, saying there is no way Mr. Bush can avoid cutting benefits.
Mr. Bush has also promised to modify Medicare to help senior citizens afford prescription drugs, a benefit not currently offered. Mr. Bush proposes a voluntary plan that offers drugs through private insurance companies. Mr. Gore proposes a more comprehensive but more expensive plan administered by the government. He has accused Mr. Bush of ignoring the needs of senior citizens.
Because of Mr. Gore’s sharp attacks, Mr. Bush has been forced in recent weeks to discuss his plans in more detail. The campaign appears to be increasingly confident that his more-detailed discussion is easing the fear of seniors, particularly in Florida.
“I know it’s Halloween time and I know the man is trying to scare seniors into the voting booth,” Mr. Bush said yesterday, drawing wild cheers from the crowd. “But that’s not going to work, not this time, not this year.”