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GOP rivals point fingers in South Carolina debate

Candidate face-off is last before Saturday primary

February 15, 2000
Web posted at: 11:41 p.m. EST (0441 GMT)

COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) -- The final debate before Saturday's South Carolina GOP primary was marked Tuesday by accusations of negative campaigning, and the three remaining rivals answered questions on such stalwart Republican issues as tax cuts, the death penalty, abortion and nuclear arms.

Gov. George W. Bush  

The free-flowing format of the debate, which was moderated by CNN's Larry King, led to several lively repartees between Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Ambassador Alan Keyes, who, when they were not taking aim at one another, fired shots at President Bill Clinton.

"It's kind of politics," Bush said of the negative turn the South Carolina campaign has taken. Saying he had let the other candidates define him in the campaign's early days, Bush vowed: "I'm not going to let it happen again. And unfortunately you ran an ad that equated me to Bill Clinton," he said to McCain. "That's about as low a blow that you can give in a Republican primary."

"There was an ad run against me, we ran a counter ad in New Hampshire," McCain shot back. "Then I was beat up pretty bad by his surrogates comparing me to Clinton, 'Clinton lite,' " McCain said, running through the campaign's negative twists and turns.

"This is an attack piece," Bush said as he held up a flyer he said was placed on a voter's windshield.

"That's not by my campaign," McCain insisted.

"Well it says 'paid for by Sen. John McCain,'" Bush said. "You can disagree with me on issues, John, but do not question my trustworthiness and do not compare me with Bill Clinton."

Keyes, who badly trails both candidates in the polls, spent much of the night saying that such squabbling was not what voters want.

Alan Keyes  

"You say this is being transmitted to 200 countries and all I'm sitting here listening to is these two guys going on about their ads?" he said. The problem, he said, stemmed from the fact that "people are trying so hard to be all things to all people ... so they get into this spitting match over who did what to whom."

When asked about tax cuts, both Bush and McCain defended their proposals.

"The difference between Gov. Bush's proposal and mine is I put a whole lot into shoring up Social Security and paying down the debt, and he puts a whole lot into tax cuts," McCain said.

"It's not the Washington mentality -- it's the grown-up mentality," McCain said of his $240 billion tax cut plan. The plan, he said, would pay off the debt and provide tax cuts to low- and moderate-income Americans while saving Social Security. "If we have a debt, we ought to pay it off," McCain said, vowing to veto any bill that increases spending if elected president. "I won't just be a hapless bystander."

"I don't trust Congress; I trust people and I want to give people their money back -- grown-up or non-grown-up," Bush said. "Either you trust the people or you trust government." His five-year, $483 billion tax cut plan would spend more of the surplus on tax cuts than McCain's.

Sen. John McCain  

On the same day that Democratic presidential front-runner Al Gore received the endorsement of a major abortion-rights group, the Republican rivals argued over who was the most anti-abortion candidate.

"The political questions around abortions are these and this is one that's gonna differentiate us from the Democratic nominee," Bush said when McCain questioned him on his pro-life stance and whether he supported the right to an abortion in cases of rape, incest or to preserve a woman's life.

"I will sign a ban on partial-birth abortion," Bush said of a controversial late-term abortion procedure that Congress has twice passed and the president has twice vetoed. "We need to keep the platform the way it is," bush said of the GOP plank that calls for a consitutional amendment banning abortion.

The Texas governor reaffirmed his support for the death penalty when asked whether he would follow the lead of Gov. George Ryan (R-Illinois), who suspended executions in the state after 13 death row inmates were found innocent.

Bush insisted that every inmate executed on his watch was guilty. "There's no doubt in my mind that each person who has been executed in my state was guilty of their crime," he said, adding that "if someone's innocent they shouldn't be put to death."

All three candidates support the death penalty, but the Texas governor, by nature of his office, is the only candidate to have presided over executions. When the question was posed to McCain, he said that DNA technology would provoke a review of certain cases, "but I certainly wouldn't abandon the death penalty."

"The death penalty is appropriate punishment as penalty for some crimes," McCain said.

VideoRepublican presidential candidates debate - part 1

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Tuesday, February 15, 2000


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