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CAMPAIGN 2000

McCain Hailed by Crowd at Rally in Little Saigon

March 02, 2000|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTMINSTER — John McCain got a hero's welcome in Orange County's Little Saigon on Wednesday night, where a crowd of about 3,000 turned out to hear the Republican candidate pitch his presidential campaign and share memories with fellow Vietnam War veterans.

McCain, who is scheduled to win a key endorsement today from Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, was a fighter pilot in the war who was captured and held prisoner for nearly six years. He thanked the Vietnamese community for fighting communism and said his sacrifice paled next to that of South Vietnamese soldiers who were jailed and tortured in their homeland.

"These are our enduring examples of the human spirit in surviving the most challenging circumstances," he said, acknowledging several South Vietnamese veterans who attended, including some of whom McCain helped to free. "In their company I am humbled."

McCain did not address the controversy that erupted last month when he referred to his captors in Vietnam as "gooks." A campaign spokesman said the candidate "had said all he's going to say about it."

McCain has apologized for the remark, saying he used the epithet to describe only his captors, who beat him nearly to death during his incarceration.

He pledged to work for a memorial in Vietnam to Vietnamese soldiers who died during the war. "I promise you that will be my goal," McCain said.

At a news conference earlier in the day, McCain said Vietnamese Americans have been "wonderful to me," and noted his involvement in such projects as normalization of relations and aiding in immigration from Vietnam.

McCain spoke to a boisterous crowd that was overwhelmingly supportive and enthusiastic, who mostly overlooked his use of the racial slur.

"He's a hero," said Nhi Le, 22, of Huntington Beach. "My opinion is . . . he said it when he was really angry. He didn't mean it for all of the Vietnamese."

Said Phong Nguyen, 40, of Irvine: "If you put yourself in his shoes, when they tortured him . . . what would you say? He just showed his anger, not discrimination."

But some who attended the rally wanted to hear an explanation from the Arizona senator.

Ginger Nguyen, 24, said she and many of her friends "were extremely offended by that word. . . . He's lost my vote and a lot of other people's votes.

"If he used the N-word . . . every single black person would jump on him, and he wouldn't be running," she said.

In Los Angeles, Baca said in an interview that he will endorse McCain at a rally this morning and will co-chair his California campaign.

Baca said he spoke to all of the major presidential candidates except Democrat Bill Bradley. He said McCain supports his call for more federal funding for law enforcement, particularly to pay for illegal immigrants being held in county jails.

"I think that he captures the imagination of all Americans more than any other candidate," Baca said. "I've read his book. I've listened closely to what he says. This man has true character, true grit, he ties the best of the past with what possibilities we have as a nation for the future."

Earlier Wednesday, McCain settled an ongoing dispute within his staff that began when communications director Dan Schnur criticized the campaign for withdrawing from a Republican debate scheduled for tonight. McCain, who now plans to participate via satellite, rejected reports that Schnur will be leaving the campaign. "He is a valued and trusted friend," he said. "He will be here until the last shot is fired."

*

Times correspondent Thuy-Doan Le, Times staff writers David Haldane and Beth Shuster, and Associated Press contributed to this story.

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