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CNN Today

John McCain and George Bush Launch Air War in South Carolina

Aired February 8, 2000 - 2:40 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: In presidential politics, there's a primary today in Delaware. But most of the action is occurring farther South, in South Carolina to be exact.

George W. Bush arrived today in Greenville, seeking to blunt the flow of support to his rival John McCain. The two men will compete in South Carolina's primary a week from next Saturday.

In Delaware today, Bush's main competition is expected to come from this man, Steve Forbes. That's largely because McCain has chosen not to mount a challenge in Delaware. After his second-place finish in the Iowa caucus, Forbes placed a distant third in New Hampshire and appears in need of a major boost.

For his part, McCain today was the first to arrive in South Carolina. In another sign of the tone the race is taking, McCain is accusing Bush of, as McCain put it, "twisting the truth like Clinton." Those are the words in a newly launched ad being aired by McCain. McCain hopes a win in South Carolina would boost the momentum he's gained since his impressive win in New Hampshire.

On the Democratic side, Al Gore campaigns today in Florida. According to our latest polls, Gore holds a healthy lead over former Senator Bill Bradley there. Bradley went today to South Carolina to push his theme of achieving racial harmony. In a scathing attack, Bradley denounced the Confederate battle flag that flies about the South Carolina statehouse. And he blistered the top two Republicans for refusing to demand the flags removal.

He accused Bush and McCain of, as Bradley put it, bottom fishing for votes among what he called the most right-wing elements of the GOP.

Joining us now for more on the presidential race, from Washington, our CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider.

Bill, first Delaware: McCain has said he has no thoughts about Delaware. But he's on the ballot. It's a Republicans-only deal today. How significant is it and for whom?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's not very significant, because -- mainly because John McCain chose not to participate in that activity. It's a strange thing, isn't it, that he says, I'm going to run in South Carolina, I'm not going to run in Delaware?

Poor George Bush, as the party front-runner, has to run everywhere.

It's really a test of George Bush's front-runner standing. If he wins Delaware, people will say, well, he won because John McCain didn't compete. But he's got to be careful. If he doesn't show up against Steve Forbes in Delaware, it would be considered another show of weakness.

I don't think McCain can keep up this picking and choosing. Especially if he wins South Carolina, then he really is going to have to run everywhere.

WATERS: The new George Bush. He retreated a bit after the New Hampshire primary. He's come out swinging. It appears everyone's in violation of Ronald Reagan's 11th -- 11th commandment.

It's being -- they're body slamming each other. Who's being most negative is the battle cry in South Carolina. What's going on?

SCHNEIDER: Well, Lou, who's keeping score? I mean, they're both slamming each other. In fact, they're both giving each other the ultimate Republican political curse: You are just like Bill Clinton, which for Republicans is very bad indeed.

McCain is saying that George Bush can't be trusted. Do we need another president in the White House that Americans can't trust? -- a clear allegation that he's untrustworthy, which is the charge raised by many people against Bill Clinton.

And of course, George Bush is saying that McCain's program, his tax plan, is very much like the Clinton tax plan. So I'm not sure who's ahead in that fight. But it is getting very, very, very serious.

WATERS: It's interesting. I see today that McCain's new ad was prompted by a Bush ad, which was prompted by -- what else? -- a McCain ad.

SCHNEIDER: You know, the thing is I don't think McCain can win out of this. He has the same problem Bill Bradley had when he went negative on Al Gore. He is descending into politics as usual. And the more McCain does that, I think the more he loses his luster, as Bradley already did a few weeks ago, as somebody who's above the fray.

WATERS: The -- is there a new tact in the McCain campaign? He was extremely -- maybe overly accessible to reporters on the Straight Talk Express, his bus. That appears to be shutting down somewhat. What's the new angle here?

SCHNEIDER: Well, the problem is he's not campaigning in New Hampshire. He's campaigning in several states. He's been in Michigan. He's been in South Carolina. He's been in California. It's kind of hard to ride a bus to all those places and to make yourself accessible to the press. He realizes that the media has done its job. The media were part of his campaign strategy. But now he has to run a bigger strategy. He's got some more money, raised over the Internet. He's running ads. And he's decided to really go one on one with George Bush, because he feels as if he's on the upswing now, Bush is on the ropes, and just with one solid punch he could knock him out in South Carolina. We'll see.

WATERS: Are you seeing the results of the new Field poll? Apparently McCain is making -- picking up some ground out there?

SCHNEIDER: Yes, in California he's still behind George W. Bush. And that of course is the key state on March the 7th. But he's still about 20 points behind. He was about 40 points behind. He's made up some ground, but there's still a great deal of ground to make up.

What's interesting in today's events to me is Bill Bradley. Look what he did. You just reported that he went to South Carolina, and he attacked both Bush and McCain for what he called weakness and passivity in not opposing the display of the Confederate flag.

Now, that's an interesting tactic, because, look, McCain is a threat to Bradley. They're both posing as reformers. But McCain is such a sensation right now that he's sucking all the oxygen out of the reform cause and leaving Bradley without much room. Bradley is in the shadows.

So No. 1, he wants to expose McCain as not a true reformer. And No. 2, that kind of attack enables Bradley perhaps to make some headway with that crucial African-American vote, which has so far been a solid wall for Al Gore.

WATERS: All right, CNN political analyst Bill Schneider, in Washington. And we'll have a new dynamic in this race with the results of the Delaware primary sometime this evening. So this story will go on today.

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