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CAMPAIGN 2000

In GOP Debate, Rivals Bristle Over Attacks

March 03, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

George W. Bush and John McCain clashed over campaign finance reform, education and campaign tactics Thursday night in their last debate before Tuesday's critical California-to-New York gantlet of Republican presidential primaries.

Appearing at a debate in Los Angeles, the two men sharpened some of their key policy disagreements while venting new personal accusations against each other.

For the most part, Bush, McCain and Alan Keyes kept at arm's length as they answered questions from journalists on issues from Taiwan to Hollywood to their use of the Internet. But on a few occasions, particularly in the debate's final moments, the candidates collided forcefully. Indeed, in contrast to the two Democratic candidates who debated a night earlier, the three GOP contenders seized virtually every opportunity provided by the questions to disagree with each other.

Not surprisingly, the personal accusations generated the most emotion. Near the conclusion, McCain forcefully jabbed Bush over recent revelations that the Texas governor had allowed some of his top fund-raisers to sleep over at the state mansion. Earlier, Bush bristled at McCain over automated telephone calls the Arizona senator's campaign had made in Michigan, criticizing Bush for his appearance last month at fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C.

After McCain insisted that the calls did not accuse Bush of bigotry, Bush fired back: "If you don't think those phone calls labeled me an anti-Catholic bigot, then you weren't paying attention to what your campaign was putting out . . . because the clear message was that I was an anti-Catholic bigot."

But, even amid the acrimony, the debate also provided perhaps the most detailed exploration yet of the two candidates' dispute over the federal role in education.

Returning to the "compassionate conservative" themes he had largely muted for much of the last three months, Bush aggressively defended his proposal to require that states test low-income students to demonstrate academic progress. Under Bush's plan, low-income parents whose children attend schools that don't show progress in teaching reading and math after three years would be eligible to convert federal Title I funds into vouchers they could use to pay for private school.

"But there must be consequences for an accountability system in order for it to work," Bush said at the debate, which was co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times and CNN. Currently, when "you receive Title I money, you don't have to show anybody whether or not the children are learning. That doesn't work. That's a system that gives up on children."

Bush added: "That's a system that just shuffles children through the system, and guess who gets shuffled through? Poor children. Guess who gets shuffled through? Children whose parents don't speak English as a first language. That's unacceptable to me."

McCain Calls Bush Plans Intrusive

McCain, who appeared via satellite from St. Louis, repeatedly intensified his attacks on those proposals as excessive federal intrusion.

"No matter how Gov. Bush slices it, it is federal control of education that his plan is talking about," McCain insisted at one point. Earlier he said: "I believe that it's a serious mistake to allow some bureaucrat in Washington to decide about the standards to be set by the people of the state of Arizona."

Bush defended his plan by noting it would let states design their own exams--but insist that they do so. "You get to develop the standards, you get to develop the tests," he said. "But you must prove that the children are learning to read and write and add and subtract."

Amid the heat of the disagreements, McCain notably reaffirmed his commitment not to bolt the GOP and run as a third-party candidate if he fails to win the nomination. Asked about Theodore Roosevelt's third-party bid in 1912, McCain answered: "I'd love to follow the example of Theodore Roosevelt; he's my ultimate hero. But in this particular example, no. I'm a loyal Republican. The Republican Party is my home . . . no matter who our nominee is, I will support that nominee."

McCain received no such assurance from Keyes, who said that he would not support the senator if he wins the nomination because he believes that McCain, despite his assertions, does not truly oppose legalized abortion.

Campaign Money Sparks Exchange

Bush and McCain also clashed on campaign finance reform. McCain suggested Bush's intent to raise unlimited soft-money contributions if he wins the nomination invited the sort of scandal that plagued President Clinton's 1996 reelection.

McCain complained that Bush was setting up "the apparatus right now . . . to raise unlimited amounts of money to funnel into this political campaign coming up in the same way Clinton and [Vice President Al] Gore did," McCain said.

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