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Negative campaigning, religion's place in politics dominate GOP debate

Bush strives to stay on 'education' message'

March 3, 2000
Web posted at: 12:35 a.m. EST (0535 GMT)

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Just days before the pivotal Super Tuesday national primary, the broad issue of religion and the bugaboo of negative campaign tactics made return appearances Thursday in a debate among the three GOP presidential candidates.

Thursday night's CNN/Los Angeles Times debate marked the 12th matchup between Texas Gov. George W. Bush, former ambassador Alan Keyes and Arizona Sen. John McCain since the marathon for the 2000 GOP presidential nomination began several months ago.

Gov. George W. Bush  

Observers keen to document the ongoing war of words between McCain and Bush witnessed a somewhat minor battle in a two-sided war that appears to grow more bitter by the day, while Keyes again turned the discord between the two party front-runners to his rhetorical advantage.

While Bush and Keyes appeared onstage, McCain appeared via satellite from St. Louis, perhaps contributing to the debate's somewhat muted tone. During the hour-long event, the candidates traded barbs on education, campaign finance reform and the role of the Christian right in the national aspirations of the Republican Party.

The three also touched upon issues such as the death penalty, abortion, foreign policy and gun safety -- and whether the badly struggling Keyes would remain a candidate much longer.

"Why am I here? It's because I'm the sentimental favorite," Keyes said at one point. (352K wav file)

McCain took fire early on in the evening for inflammatory comments he made during the Virginia primary campaign about Christian conservatives Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. McCain described both as intolerant and divisive in sharply honed speech Monday in Virginia Beach, Virginia. (424K wav file)

The tone of that speech has since been blamed by McCain friend and foe alike for causing severe damage to the senator's efforts to shore up support within his own party.

Bush, Keyes
Gov. George W. Bush and Alan Keyes  

McCain denied that he has declared war on the Christian right, saying: "The fact is, I have rejected the leadership of these two individuals who have led our party in the wrong direction. Their message of intolerance is in direct contradiction to the message I've been trying to send America."

McCain insisted that his recent denunciation of the Christian Coalition is not politically motivated -- despite his previous 100 percent congressional voting rating from the group, and a 1997 appearance on Robertson's "700 Club" television show

"I'm proud that I have supported many of the issues that have to do with family values," McCain said. "Their message is exclusionary," he added. "Ours is a message of inclusion ... and I'm positive that Christian conservatives will flock to that banner."

Bush and some of the journalists on the panel that facilitated Thursday's debate questioned the telephone practices of the McCain campaign, as McCain has repeatedly made light of Robertson's efforts on behalf of Bush in Michigan.

A number of calls made by the McCain campaign prior to the Michigan primary pointed out to voters in that state -- which sports a high percentage of Roman Catholics -- that Bush had made a widely publicized speech at South Carolina's controversial Bob Jones University, which has been pilloried for its ban on inter-racial dating, and for unflattering comments by made by staff and faculty regarding the legitimacy of Catholicism.

McCain had first disavowed knowledge of the calls, but days later admitted he had understood and stood by their content.

"It was straight talk because we wanted to tell people exactly what Gov. Bush had done," McCain said. "That was a factual and fair statement, unlike many of the calls and negative ads (created by the Bush campaign)." (220K wav file)

Sen. John McCain  

"If you don't think those phone calls called me an 'anti-Catholic bigot,' then you haven't been paying much attention to what your campaign is putting out, I guess," a clearly annoyed Bush responded. (248K wav file)

"Catholics have been coming to my defense," Bush said.

"When I went to Bob Jones I followed a long tradition of both Republican and Democratic candidates who went to Bob Jones to lay out their vision. I talked about bringing people together so America could achieve its greatness. I talked about lifting the spirit and the soul of this country."

"I regret I did not speak out on that school's anti-Catholic bias. I missed an opportunity. I make no excuses." (464K wav file)

A growing divide on campaign reform

Bush and McCain continually scratched and clawed at each other throughout the shortened forum on the subject of campaign finance reform, which is perhaps the most glaring issue separating their two platforms.

Queried on the effectiveness of legal limits placed on contributions made by individuals to nationally run campaigns, Bush said he believed single persons should not be subjected to donation limits, much as his home state of Texas allows through the course of its internal political contests.

"In my state, individuals can give to a candidate what they want to give as long as there is disclosure," Bush said. "I believe we ought to have instant disclosure on the Internet on a real-time basis so no one has anything to hide."

The Texas governor added that he strongly objected to a portion of McCain's campaign finance overhaul proposal that would bring and end to "issue advocacy" advertising -- broadcast ads created by interest groups to advance their positions on a singular issue that often seek to bend voters toward a particular candidate.

McCain, Bush
Sen. John McCain (via satellite) and Gov. George W. Bush  

Elimination of the ads was a core tenet of McCain's campaign finance reform legislation, which failed in the Senate in 1998 and 1999.

"I don't much like the (issue ads) that people run against me, but I believe in freedom of speech," Bush said. "And that's freedom of speech."

"Governor Bush says he wants unlimited contributions," McCain said minutes later.

"Maybe that explains why he had so many sleepovers in the Texas governor's mansion," McCain continued, referring to stories that broke Thursday in a number of media outlets that Bush had allegedly allowed certain campaign contributors to spend the night in his Austin home. (320K wav file)

"These are my friends, John," Bush responded. "These are my relatives."

Grabbing a catch-phrase from McCain's stash, Bush purloined McCain's "iron triangle" metaphor, often described by the Arizona senator as "big money, lobbyists and legislation," and suited it to his own use.

"You talk about an iron triangle," Bush shot at McCain, "You're ringing it like a dinner bell for all those fund-raisers and lobbyists in Washington, D.C." (268K wav file)

"If I'm ringing it like a dinner bell, you've got both feet in the trough, because you have raised five times more money in Washington than I have," McCain countered. (116K wav file)

Alan Keyes  

Keyes, speaking to reporters after the affair, put a unique spin in the campaign finance issue, saying the national news media was to blame for the influx of cash benefitting both major parties.

With "proper" media coverage of national campaigns, Keyes argued, the need for large donations would "disappear."

"When the media decides to stop acting irresponsibly and start doing its job, you will see the grass roots fired up," he said. "You are all destroying the integrity of the process."


Bush tried desperately to steer the debate toward his plan to grant states and local school districts more control over the use of federal Title I funds as the evening wore on, with the caveat that school systems would have to prove that students were showing continual improvement.

The Bush camp had hoped to nail McCain on education Thursday night, hinting throughout the week that the Arizona senator was weak in that key area.

"I understand education. I believe in working to make sure children are not left behind," he said. The current system, he argued, which does not require strict accountability from schools, leaves poor children "behind, and it leaves children whose parents do not speak English behind."

"This is a huge issue in California," Bush said just before heading to the airport to board a flight home to Austin.

McCain pointed to his involvement in education reform in Arizona as his most important contribution to the issue. He added that his support for increased local control was necessary because it would be a "serious mistake to allow some bureaucrat in Washington to decide standards."

And in a week when a six-year-old girl was shot and killed by a classmate in Michigan and a gunman killed three men outside of Pittsburgh, Bush was asked why he remains opposed to stricter gun regulation.

"I don't mind trigger locks being sold," Bush said, "but the question is: How do we enforce it? Are we going to have the trigger lock police?" When pressed, he added that the current laws ought to be enforced and background checks conducted.

VideoRepublican presidential candidates debate in L.A. - part 1
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Part 2
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Part 3
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Part 4
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