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 TIME on politics TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics - Storypage, with
TIME and TIME

Boisterous South Carolina GOP crowd greets six party presidential hopefuls

By Ian Christopher McCaleb and Randy Lilleston/CNN

January 8, 2000
Web posted at: 1:35 a.m. EST (0635 GMT)

WEST COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) -- A clear, warm night, an oddball venue and a fresh audience embraced the familiar field of six Republican presidential candidates at a high-profile debate Friday night just miles from the South Carolina Capitol.

But despite the refreshing change in geography for the party's campaigners, who have trudged through ice, snow and cold in New Hampshire and Iowa in recent weeks, there was one bit of contempt-inducing familiarity the six could not escape Friday night in the Palmetto State -- each other.

Collegiality has steadily disintegrated between the candidates as they have participated in a demanding series of debates in the course of the last two months -- the latest of which was held only 24 hours before in Durham, New Hampshire.

Friday's debate touched on little in the way of new material, but the frayed nerves of each of the participants are beginning to become more and more apparent.

The addition of a raucous crowd, fueled by a GOP pep rally prior to the debate, made for a tense evening for all involved.

'All Politics is Local'

Some of the candidates choose to play to the crowd when given the opportunity by debate moderators Brian Williams of NBC News and David Stanton of local NBC affiliate WIS.

 VIDEO
VideoCNN's Bruce Morton looks at the importance of South Carolina in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
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At the start of the night's proceedings, Texas Gov. George W. Bush turned one of the state's most divisive issues to his advantage, saying it was up to South Carolina residents to decide whether the Confederate battle flag should continue flying over the state Capitol. The move prompted an enthusiastic response from the 3,000-strong crowd of Republican loyalists, many of whom made their thoughts about the notion of removing the flag clear with loud catcalls, boos and hisses.

Williams asked Bush whether he was personally "affronted" by the display of the flag, which has come under fire as a symbol of racism from state and national African American groups -- including the NAACP, which has called on members to boycott the state until the flag is permanently removed. Many state residents consider the flag a symbol of history and heritage, and chafe at the calls for its dismissal.

"You're trying to get me to express the will of the people of South Carolina," Bush said. "I believe the people of South Carolina can figure out what to do with this flag issue."

But former U.N. ambassador Alan Keyes blasted Bush's response to the question after the debate, telling reporters Bush was willfully ignoring the views of a significant sector of South Carolina's population.

"He refused to take into account the sensitivity of the black people of South Carolina on that flag," Keyes, the only African American running for president, said emphatically.

Bush's crowd-pleasing answer could not have been delivered in a more 'local' setting. Friday's debate was held at a most unusual location -- a former hardware store in West Columbia. The large building was used for a fund-raising dinner before the debate, and the raucous partisan audience stayed to watch the event. Their cheers and boos boomed throughout the hall, whose concrete and cinder block walls also reverberated with the responses of the candidates.

The crowd stayed active to the point of occasional hostility throughout the hour-long debate: Williams was nearly booed down when he asked Bush about the flag issue, and a local television reporter was booed loudly when she asked the candidates to list their biggest mistake.

"I have to ask if that is a question that is appropriate to be asked," an angry Keyes said. But while the crowd fell in behind Keyes, who insisted private matters should not be laid out in a public forum, other candidates took the question in stride.

McCain again attacks Bush tax plan

The debate is considered important because of South Carolina's key place in the primary calendar. The state's February 19 GOP primary comes between the New Hampshire primary and a series of closely crowded multiple-primary days, and the candidates have targeted the state as a momentum-builder.

Many of the issues mentioned were familiar, and included tax policy, gays in the military, Social Security and abortion.

Sen. John McCain, Bush's closest rival both in South Carolina and New Hampshire, went after the governor by saying Bush's tax cut plan was "fiscally irresponsible."

"We ought to pay down the national debt," McCain said. "The American people are tired of people who make promises about cutting taxes that they cannot keep."

Bush retorted that his plan was better than McCain's for lower-income taxpayers, adding: "There is enough money to take care of Social Security. There is enough money to take care of the basic services of government, and there is enough money to give the people a substantial tax cut. And that's what I intend to do."

McCain again faced questioning about whether he has intervened with the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of campaign contributors. As he has in the past, he said it was his responsibility, as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, to intervene in cases where he felt the FCC was acting too slowly.

McCain also had to defend the centerpiece of his campaign -- his proposals to restrict so-called "soft money" political contributions.

"John is starting to sound like the accordion player who only knows one tune: 'Lady of Spain,'" said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. "Why should I or any other Republican support (a plan) that is unconstitutional? Hatch intoned. "It would hurt the Republican Party."

McCain responded by saying, "I've always thought what is best for the country is best for the party." Addressing Hatch directly, he said: "You are defending an illegal system that has caused the debasement of every institution of government."

The event's moderators threw conservative activist Gary Bauer somewhat of a curve ball on one his core-value issues, abortion. Williams asked Bauer if a loved one of his was raped and impregnated, and if that person decided to have an abortion, would he support that decision.

Bauer's answer was no. "If my daughter was raped, that would be one of the most horrible things I could think of," he said. "But I would comfort her and tell her that taking the life of that innocent unborn child will not make it right.

Keyes was passionate on the same subject. Asked whether he would rather face another Democratic administration or live with a pro-choice Republican in the White House, he said, "I don't think that has to be our choice. ... This party was born in principle. This party will die if it doesn't stand by its decision of principle."

Democratic candidates sharply criticized

Some members of the GOP field seemed intent on spending as much time attacking the two major Democratic presidential candidates -- Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley -- as they were on attacking one another. Gore and Bradley came under scathing criticism for saying they would require the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to be supportive of gays in the military.

Keyes asked McCain to join him in a pledge to ban the enlistment of any gays in the military. McCain refused, saying he preferred the current 'don't ask, don't tell' policy, but he blasted both Gore and Bradley for advocating the "total destruction" of what the military stands for.

The debate produced a flourish or two -- the contenders fielded questions submitted on the Internet, for example. And for the first time in their campaign, they were asked about their own charitable giving. The candidates all said they were regular charitable donors, although several, including Bush, did not know what percentage of income they donated to charity.


ELECTION 2000

McCain reports raising more than $6 million in quarter (12-29-99)

Reform Party splinters over convention, ideology, court action (12-29-99)

For politicians, shaking hands is tough, grimy work (12-29-99)

Forbes would do more to find illegal Internet sites (12-29-99)

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