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CAMPAIGN 2000

After Wavering, McCain Agrees to Join California GOP Debate

Forum: Candidate will participate in event via satellite. Meanwhile, his communications chief is leaving campaign after criticizing boss.

March 01, 2000|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER and ROBERT A. ROSENBLATT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

STOCKTON — In an abrupt turnaround, John McCain agreed Tuesday to meet George W. Bush and Alan Keyes in a Los Angeles Times/CNN-sponsored debate on Thursday.

McCain, who previously said he would not attend the event because of commitments, decided to participate in the debate via a satellite link. The event is the only planned meeting between Republican candidates before the Tuesday contests in California and 11 other states that will determine more than half the delegates necessary to win the nomination.

"We were able to flex our schedule, cancel events in New York and do it by satellite," McCain said. "That's a big disadvantage to be doing it by satellite. [But] we're willing to do that."

A Change of Heart

McCain aides said the sudden change of heart came after they decided not to risk any political fallout by skipping the event in California, where Republicans will choose 162 delegates of the 1,034 needed nationally to win the nomination.

"We don't want the debate symbolically to be misinterpreted," said Mike Murphy, the campaign's strategist.

Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman, said his candidate would appear at the debate either in person or by satellite. He sharply criticized McCain for flip-flopping, noting that most polls have McCain losing to Bush among likely Republican voters.

"The senator is engaging in a little California dreaming," Fleischer said. "He knows it's impossible to come back if he shuns the debate. I think he had to engage in this embarrassing reversal."

Times spokesman Mike Lange said Tuesday afternoon that the paper had not heard that Bush might back out of debating in person.

"We don't know that that's an option so we're not dealing with that," Lange said. "His campaign people were here today, checking out the location for his attendance Thursday."

Keyes' campaign said the former deputy U.N. ambassador, who was stumping Tuesday in New York, would participate in the debate.

As for whether the Times and its co-sponsor, CNN, would still hold the debate with only one--or even none--of the candidates in person, Lange said: "We're working collaboratively with CNN to make sure we can put on a debate that is going to best service the interests of voters, and that's going to be paramount in our deliberations."

In a development apparently related to the debate controversy, Dan Schnur, McCain's communications chief and a longtime California strategist, is leaving the campaign, shortly after he criticized McCain's original decision not to debate.

A top McCain aide would only say that he expected a "mutually agreed upon departure in the near future."

Schnur had said on Monday that McCain's decision not to debate was a mistake that should be blamed on a "beltway mentality" among some advisors. "It's definitely a mistake, but the people of California will hopefully place more emphasis on their support for John McCain's reform agenda and his fight to get the special interests out of government than on a tactical error at the staff level," Schnur said.

McCain said Tuesday that he fully supported his right to disagree. "I'm honored to have Dan as a friend, and I'm honored to have him on the campaign. I believe he has every right to disagree with anything we do, particularly when it has to do with the state he knows best."

The back and forth on the debates began last week. McCain had already agreed to participate in the event at the Los Angeles Times when Bush announced that he would participate in the forum the day after his loss in Michigan Feb. 22.

But by that time, McCain aides, relying on published reports that Bush might not attend, had already changed their schedules and decided not to attend the debate.

Instead, they planned to leave California the night of the debate, to attend a rally in New York on Thursday, then make an early morning appearance on NBC-TV's "Today Show." New York is the second-biggest electoral prize at stake Tuesday, with 101 delegates at stake.

As a result, McCain has insisted since Sunday that he could not participate in the debate, though he offered to meet Bush at two other forums before the Tuesday contests. Only an hour before his reversal, McCain told reporters on his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, that there was "no possible way" to hold the debate.

"We cannot flex our schedule just because George Bush is blown by the electoral winds," he said.

But immediately after a town hall meeting in Stockton, McCain announced he had decided that his campaign plane would take off from Los Angeles and touch down somewhere in the Midwest--possibly St. Louis or Kansas--in order to participate in the debate via satellite.

McCain said he had been mulling how to participate in the debate for several days.

"The real deal is . . . sometimes I don't share all of the inner workings and contemplations of our campaign," he said. "But until we were ready to make that change, I apologize for not sharing my musing with you as to how we can achieve being in the debate."

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