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McCain Supporters Are Irked by Bush Comments

Campaign: Texas governor's assertions that rival's candidacy had little influence and effect riles senator's supporters. Aides say endorsement less likely.


ST. CHARLES, Ill. — Instead of healing wounds left from the combative Republican primary, John McCain supporters said Thursday that George W. Bush is continuing to stir up animosity that could jeopardize his chance of winning the independent voters McCain drew in record numbers.

The latest turmoil developed when Bush suggested in a published interview that McCain's insurgent candidacy had a minimal effect on the Republican Party and that he was not influenced by any of the senator's positions.

The comments to the New York Times irked Republicans from Capitol Hill to the McCain campaign, where advisors say the senator from Arizona is becoming less and less likely to endorse Bush.

"I'm extremely disappointed," said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), a McCain backer. "Either [Bush] is extremely arrogant or he's politically tone-deaf. He really believes that all the balloons flying and all the confetti falling means he doesn't need anybody's help. And he does."

McCain voters "are absolutely essential if we're going to win the election," King added. "It's common sense."

Before "suspending" his campaign following losses in the March 7 primaries, McCain invigorated independent-minded voters and generated record turnouts in nine contests. Experts attributed the performance in large part to McCain's messages of campaign finance reform and limiting the influence of special interests on the federal government.

McCain's centrist support was so strong that experts say his supporters could determine the outcome of the general election in November.

While Gore has been openly and increasingly invoking the lessons and themes of the McCain campaign, Bush has been more circumspect, both in his praise of the man and of his ideas. At the same time, Bush staffers have been meeting quietly with McCain advisors to seek a reconciliation.

"What all of us around both these guys are saying is, you have to be sensitive about what you say while we try to bring this together," said Washington lobbyist Vin Webber, a McCain ally trying to broker an agreement between the two rivals.

In his interview with the New York Times, Bush dismissed McCain's role in generating record turnouts by saying: "Well, then how come he didn't win?" He also said the popular issues McCain promoted "didn't change my views." Asked whether he needs to make concessions to McCain, Bush replied: "No. I think what I need to do is explain to John that we agree a lot more than we disagree. There's a lot of room for reform in Washington, D.C."

Campaigning in Illinois on Thursday, Bush sought to downplay the flap. Aides also pointed to another story published Thursday in which Bush's tone was more genteel.

"I appreciate the hard campaign that John McCain waged," Bush told a Lincoln Day gathering in Springfield, Ill. "He ran a good race. He highlighted the need for reform, and I appreciate the ideas that he brought forth in the campaign. Of course, he and I agree on a lot, and it starts with this: The best reform for America is to end the Clinton-Gore era in Washington, D.C."

Bush also attempted to tone down the political debate Thursday by separating himself from controversial comments made recently by an executive at the National Rifle Assn. In a rare disagreement with the powerful gun lobby, Bush said NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre went too far by suggesting that President Clinton tolerates violence in America because it helps him promote anti-gun legislation.

"There's ways to debate the issue without casting aspersions on the president like that," Bush said. "I just think they've gone too far."

Democrats have already pounced on the NRA comments for being incredulous and extremist.

On Thursday, Gore also seized on Bush's comments about McCain in hopes of luring some of the former Republican candidate's supporters to his side.

"I'm telling you," the vice president said at a gathering in Chevy Chase, Md., "[Bush] should have been taking notes during John McCain's campaign. If he had been taking notes, he would have written it down when John McCain said that his risky tax scheme gives 60% of all the money to the 10% of the wealthiest Americans and risks our prosperity. He would have been taking notes and written down the statement when John McCain said Gov. Bush doesn't put a penny into Medicare, doesn't put a penny into Social Security, doesn't put a penny into paying down our national debt.

"I've learned a lot from the primaries," Gore continued before the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a grass-roots political group known as ACORN that represents low- and moderate-income people. "I have heard the message from the American people that they want both parties, and independents as well, to get moving and pass meaningful campaign finance reform."

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