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CAMPAIGN 2000

McCain Reacts Angrily to Ads, Wistfully to Bush Surge

March 06, 2000|MARIA L. La GANGA and T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

OAKLAND — With polls bringing bad tidings for John McCain, the senator from Arizona launched a scathing attack Sunday on George W. Bush, accusing him of running a "Clintonesque campaign" guilty of the same questionable conduct that surrounded the 1996 presidential race. The Texas governor brushed off McCain as he continued to look past him to the contest in the fall.

With tensions clearly rising be tween the two as 13 Republican primaries and caucuses loom on Tuesday, McCain loosed some of the harshest language he has yet directed at his front-running rival--words that could come back later in the form of Democratic broadsides against Bush.

Stumping from New York to Ohio and California, McCain suggested in a television interview that Bush was "not ready for prime time" and refused to pledge outright to support his rival should Bush win the GOP nomination.

"I expect Gov. Bush to change," McCain said when asked about backing Bush. "I expect him to run an entirely different campaign than the kind that he's run in this primary." McCain reiterated, though, that he plans to remain a loyal Republican and would not bolt the party.

Much of McCain's assault stemmed from a last-minute ad blitz, financed by one of Bush's Texas backers, that attacks McCain's environmental record. At a cost of more than $2 million, it has been airing in the three states most critical in Tuesday's balloting--California, New York and Ohio.

Bush has strongly denied any role in the ad campaign, but McCain still sought to link it to the fund-raising furor that surrounded the Democrats four years ago.

"The scandal in Washington was the debasement of the institution of government in 1996 by the Clinton-Gore campaign, which the Bush campaign is beginning to imitate right now as we speak," McCain charged. ". . . It's so Clintonesque, it's scary. Raise the soft money. Run the attack ads. They're getting more and more like the Clinton campaign. They'll say anything."

In 1996, the Democratic reelection campaign for President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore benefited from hundreds of thousands of dollars in so-called "soft money" contributions illegally funneled through the Democratic Party by foreign contributors.

"Tell Gov. Bush to stop his cronies in Texas from destroying the American political system," McCain said, prompting an audience outside Cleveland to stomp the bleachers in a mostly filled high school gymnasium.

Bush, appearing on CBS-TV's "Face the Nation," said the ads are "totally independent of my campaign. . . . That's what freedom of speech is all about." Later, asked about McCain's harsh language, Bush blandly turned aside the charge.

"This is a campaign that has energized the Republican Party," he told reporters at an Oakland press conference.

For his part, the Texas supporter of Bush who financed the controversial ads said he might run similar commercials in the general election against Gore, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Businessman Sam Wyly said he could also target certain members of Congress.

"We're inventing this as we go along," said Wyly, delighted at the stir his advertising has caused. "We've only been doing this for a week."

Bush spent the day campaigning in California from the Bay Area into the Central Valley, fighting a cold and fending off protesters.

About a dozen anti-death penalty demonstrators, waving signs and chanting, disrupted Bush's speech in Oakland, until they were booed down by Bush supporters and hustled out by police. Asked about the protests at a later news conference, Bush said they "didn't bother him in the least" and restated his confidence that "everyone put to death in [Texas] is guilty as charged." Texas has the most active death chamber in the nation, with Bush presiding over 121 executions since becoming governor in 1995.

With an eye on the fall election, the governor continued efforts to edge back to the political middle. He reached out to middle-class mothers by stressing his education plan, which revolves around local control of schools and accountability tests. He reached out to the growing Latino community by lauding the "thousands and thousands of Hispanic-owned businesses" in the Southland.

The Republicans compete Tuesday in 13 states for 613 delegates, more than half the total needed to cinch the GOP nomination.

With polls suggesting trouble in the key states McCain needs to win Tuesday, a somber air descended on his insurgent campaign. At times--between all the angry rhetoric--McCain sounded almost wistful Sunday. He told a crowd of nearly 1,500 outside Cleveland that no matter what happens, his reform message will live on.

"I'm proud to not only have been in a lead position, I've also been proud to be a part of it," he said of the campaign process.

Late Sunday night, McCain spoke to a crowd of about 500 people at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, Calif.

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