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In key debate, GOP candidates duel over campaign tactics

February 16, 2000
Web posted at: 7:53 a.m. EST (1253 GMT)

COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) -- With polls indicating the race will go down to the wire, Republican rivals George W. Bush and John McCain engaged in a decidedly uncivil war of words in South Carolina on Wednesday night, trading heated accusations over less than honorable campaign tactics in their last debate before Saturday's crucial primary.

Gov. George W. Bush  

"You should be ashamed," said McCain, chastising the Texas governor for negative campaign tactics. Bush wasted no time with firing back: "Don't compare me to Bill Clinton." At different points during their 90-minute encounter, both Bush and McCain waved campaign flyers as evidence that the other was distorting his record.

The debate, moderated by CNN's Larry King, and sponsored by the South Carolina Business and Industry Political Education Committee, also included conservative talk show host Alan Keyes, whose fiery oratory has distinguished him in past meetings. But the repartee between Bush and McCain often left Keyes struggling to insert his comments.

Although all the three GOP hopefuls traded barbs on familiar GOP themes such as taxes, abortion and campaign finance -- and mostly agreed on foreign policy and defense - the debate reached its most intense points when the topic turned to negative campaign tactics, as it did repeatedly.

McCain, a former Navy pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war, complained that the Bush camp paid for an event in which a leader of a "fringe group" attacked McCain Senate's record on defending veterans' interests.

"I don't know if you can understand, this, George, but that really hurt. That really hurt," McCain said. "You should be ashamed of sponsoring an event with that man there," McCain continued.

Bush agreed with McCain, but still defended the theme of the Bush event, which featured a number of former generals and Medal of Honor winners who endorsed the Texas governor over McCain. "The man was not speaking for me ... if you want to know my opinion about you, John, you served our country strongly and admirably.

But Bush quickly rebounded by accusing one of McCain's supporters, former Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, of calling members of the Christian Coalition "a bunch of bigots."

Alan Keyes  

Keyes belittled his two rivals' arguments: "Is this kind of pointless squabbling really what we want to see? We're talking about electing the president of the United States."

Undaunted, both candidates returned to the topic. Bush accused McCain of saying "one thing and doing another" when he pledged earlier this week to stop running all negative ads in South Carolina.

Bush produced a printed flyer that attacked him over Social Security, a copy of which he said had turned up on a nearby car windshield on Monday. In a press conference after the debate, the Arizona senator offered a different explanation. "I can't account for what was handed out, it could have been last week," Mccain said. "There are no negative ads by this campaign."

Bush campaign spokeswomen Karen Hughes said such flyers were handed out Monday at Bush campaign stops in Aiken and Rock Hill, South Carolina on Monday.

"His staff was distributing negative campaign flyers that include complete distortions of Gov. Bush's record, " she said

During the debate, Bush said he was willing to stand by all ads he was running, and said to McCain, "you can disagree with me on issues, John, but do not question - do not question my trustworthiness and do not compare me to Bill Clinton."

"I was able to hold my own about the tone of the campaign," Bush said afterward." There were some very interesting exchanges about who's saying what about whom."

McCain campaign spokesman Howard Opinksy characterized the Bush accusation as a sign of desperation: "This is a campaign that doing push polling, that's doing negative ads on television, and they want to point at us?" It's absurd."

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Tuesday showed Bush leading McCain 49 percent to 42 percent, just above the five-point margin of error. Bush holds a strong lead among Republicans, while McCain enjoys a wide advantage among independents and Democrats, who are eligible to vote in the Palmetto State showdown.

Sen. John McCain  

During another heated exchange, McCain caught Bush in what seemed to be a contradiction on abortion. He noted that the Texas governor supports the Republican platform language on abortion from 1996, a plank that envisions no exceptions for a ban on the procedure. Yet Bush has also said he favors exceptions for cases of rape, incest and the life of a mother.

Keyes, who opposes abortion under all circumstances, attacked both of his rivals. "One individual doesn't really accept the pro-life position of the party, and the other ... says he supports it and takes a position that is logically inconsistent."

With the stakes high, both Bush and McCain seemed particularly intent on making their points. "Let me finish," both candidates insisted several times.

At another point, McCain criticized Bob Jones University for its policy banning interracial dating, saying it's "stupid, it's idiotic and incredibly cruel." Bush and Keyes have both given speeches at the Christian South Carolina college in recent days.

All three men said the United States should build a national anti-ballistic missile defense system and criticized the Clinton Administration for taking a soft stance toward communist China.

"All three of us agree that the president has drug his feet" on the anti-ballistic missile system, said Bush.

Bush trumpeted his tax plan as the common sense plan to give money "back to the people, not Congress." The five-year $483 billion plan would gradually reduce all tax rates, with the lowest bracket paying just 10 percent, the highest, 33 percent.

McCain said his own, five-year, $240 billion plan -- which expands the bottom 15 percent tax bracket to families with taxable income of 70,000 -- as more responsible because it leaves a large amount of the projected budget surpluses for Social Security and Medicare.

Asked if he would win the South Carolina primary, McCain replied: "We're going to do just fine. I think we'll probably win. I think it will be close."

"Our objective is to end the Clinton era in Washington, D.C.," said Bush, "That's what this primary is all breathe some common sense and integrity into Washington, D.C."

He added: "Yeah, I am going to win."


VideoRepublican presidential candidates debate - part 1

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Wednesday, February 16, 2000


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