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NATIONAL DESK

THE 2000 CAMPAIGN: Bush and McCain Scurry Toward Showdown in South Carolina

By FRANK BRUNI AND ALISON MITCHELL (NYT) 1727 words
Published: February 18, 2000

CHARLESTON, S.C., Feb. 17 - With only two days to go before a Republican primary that seems too close to call, Gov. George W. Bush and Senator John McCain raced across South Carolina today, with Mr. Bush continuing a relentless attack on his opponent and Mr. McCain making a broad appeal for the votes of Republicans, independents and Democrats alike.

The day offered a vivid reflection of the diverging strategies of the main two Republican contenders, both of whom recognize that turnout will be critical in Saturday's primary and that the outcome could play a pivotal role in deciding the party's nomination.

''I'll tell you what, my friends,'' Mr. McCain said a VFW breakfast in Spartanburg this morning, ''if we win here, I don't see how we can really be stopped.''

At several events today, Mr. Bush made a direct appeal to conservatives, charging that Mr. McCain was continuing to run a negative campaign and that prominent Democrats were encouraging their party members -- who are allowed to vote in the Republican primary -- to support Mr. McCain because he would be an easier opponent for a Democratic nominee to beat.

''Republicans are supporting me in big numbers in South Carolina,'' Mr. Bush told reporters. ''There's a real intensity about it. I do hear some concern amongst Republicans that it's going to be the Democrats who determine the outcome of the election here, and they want to make sure that doesn't happen.''

Mr. McCain tried to soar above the brittle fight here, barely mentioning his opponent by name.

His campaign was broadcasting a final get-out-the vote advertisement that compared him to Ronald Reagan. And Mr. McCain, ever mindful of the crossover vote that helped produce his stunning victory in New Hampshire two weeks ago, talked expansively about his desire for a Republican Party that could attract independents and Democrats.

''My Republican Party to some degree has lost its way,'' he said to the veterans. ''I want it to be a reform party; I want it to be an inclusive party. It's not about being a Republican and Democrat. What it's really being about is the core principles and ideals about less government, lower taxes and a strong national defense.''

The McCain campaign also bombarded the state's talk radio stations with calls. In the morning and afternoon, Mr. McCain sat in the back of his bus telephoning drive-time hosts, while Gary Bauer, a former presidential rival who appeals to Christian conservatives, made his own calls to different stations from the front of the bus.

In a new touch, the McCain bus now bears its Web address on the outside. The address was even emblazoned on the bus' roof earlier this week when the Today Show used helicopters to help it interview Mr. McCain from the bus.

Mr. McCain tangled with Governor Bush over a flier that became an issue in their debate earlier in the week. At the beginning of a news conference in Florence this morning, without any prompting, Mr. Bush charged that Mr. McCain was still distributing the flier, which he said contradicted both the senator's positive-campaign pledge last week and his statements during a debate on Tuesday that his campaign was not disseminating the document.

The flier asserts that Mr. Bush wants to nationalize education and and that his tax cut plan would squander the federal surplus so that there was not ''one red cent'' left to shore up Social Security.

''There's nothing factual about this,'' Mr. Bush complained. ''The Senator has got to understand that he can't have it both ways. He can't take the high horse and then claim the low road.''

Mr. Bush's education plan calls for more intensive federal monitoring of schools and programs that get federal money, but he talks often about keeping public education a local prerogative. And the surplus issue is a matter of much debate, depending on which pools of money are being considered.

Mr. McCain said the flier did not constitute a negative attack on Mr. Bush because it told the truth. ''The flier is accurate,'' he said. ''It's totally accurate.''

He also tried to explain why he had disavowed involvement with the flier during the debate. ''I obviously mistakenly took his word for it that it was a negative piece of information,'' Mr. McCain said, referring to Mr. Bush, who pulled out the flier and brandished it during the debate.

As Mr. Bush traveled from Florence to Myrtle Beach and on to Charleston, his repeated assertions that the senator's actions did not match his words appeared an attempt to tarnish the image Mr. McCain's supporters have worked hard to promote: that he is a hero and crusader with unusual integrity.

The effort may have been aimed at those independents who could easily tip the race in one direction or another. But for Republicans, Mr. Bush had another message: that he was their best chance at winning back the White House, an argument that has been at the core of his campaign from the beginning.

Several recent polls suggest that this may not be the case. But Mr. Bush repeatedly insisted, as he has all week long, that Democrats prepared to vote for Mr. McCain in the primaries here on Feb. 19 and in Michigan on Feb. 22 were simply trying to do their eventual presidential nominee a favor.

Mr. Bush, his surrogates and interest groups have also tried to appeal to conservatives in the party. He has steadfastly refused to nudge South Carolinians in any direction in their debate over the Confederate battle flag at the state house. And two weeks ago, he spoke to students at Bob Jones University, a conservative Christian school that bans interracial dating.

Asked at the news conference whether voters might reach the conclusion that he was not an ardent foe of racial intolerance, the governor grew tense and visibly angry.

''Don't you judge my heart based upon giving a speech at a university,'' he admonished reporters. Then noted that former presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, his father, had also visited the university.

Mr. Bush said he was not sure whether he had been informed about the dating policy before he spoke at the school, but insisted he did not regret his appearance.

Mr. McCain is also aware of the power of religious conservatives, and his aides tried to deflect accusations from Bush supporters that Mr. McCain was not reliable on abortion and other social issues.

But there was at least one sign last night that Mr. Bauer's support would not fully insulate Mr. McCain from the religious right. James C. Dobson, a prominent Christian conservative who has been close to Mr. Bauer, released a statement that took issue with the endorsement and expressed harsh criticism of Mr. McCain over his votes to confirm what Dr. Dobson called ''pro-abortion'' Supreme Court justices. Dr. Dobson also noted that Mr. McCain had accepted contributions from the gambling and alcohol industries.

Earlier, Mr. Bauer made it clear he knew that his endorsement of Mr. McCain would not be greeted with great enthusiasm by allies on the religious right. At one point, in a phone call to his friend William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, he said, ''Did I mention to you if this doesn't work out, my family and I will be living in your house?''

Mr. McCain hailed Mr. Bauer throughout the day as a man of courage. ''My friends, the best thing and smartest thing for Gary Bauer to do in this campaign was stay out of it,'' he told the audience in the outdoor Wyche Pavilion here. ''Now you tell me,'' Mr. Bauer murmured.

Douglas Johnson, a senior official of the National Right to Life Committee, said today he did not think the endorsement would change the minds of many conservative voters. ''Gary Bauer was not attracting many pro-life voters in his own right,'' Mr. Johnson said, ''and we don't think he's going to be able to rehabilitate John McCain.''

Mr. McCain began his morning at a breakfast at a Spartanburg VFW post and later spoke at two rallies where rock music blared and confetti was shot into the air.

One of the events at times resembled a revival meeting, as an announcer called out the name of a voter who had become a recent convert to Mr. McCain. As music boomed, the Senator's wife, Cindy, danced on a stage outdoors.

One of the voters gazing up at Mr. McCain from the front of the crowd was Diane Underwood, a nurse who said she had welcomed him and other prisoners of war home from Vietnam at Clark Air Force base in the Philippines in 1973.

She said she remembered how the returning prisoners of war asked for things they craved, like a favorite food. Mr. McCain, she recalled, ''wanted books and newspapers and magazines, so that he could see what went on while he was in captivity.''

The senator's time as a prisoner also came up on the bus this afternoon when reporters asked him about a report that he had referred to his Vietnamese captors as ''gooks'' while on his campaign bus in October. ''I'll call right now my interrogator that tortured me and my friends a gook,'' said Mr. McCain who was a prisoner for five-and-a-half years. ''You can quote me.''

He called his guards ''cruel and sadistic people'' and said ''I will continue to refer to them in language that might offend some people here, because of their beating and killing and torture of my friends. I hated the gooks and I will hate them as long as I live.''


 

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