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CNN Today

Battleground in Republican Presidential Race Shifts to Michigan; McCain Denounces Negative Campaigning

Aired February 21, 2000 - 2:01 p.m. ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, the political drama is in Michigan, where the outcome of tomorrow's state Republican primary could prove pivotal in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. Texas Governor George W. Bush and Arizona Senator John McCain are locked in a statistical dead heat, say the polls. But only one will win Michigan, and that could make all the difference as to what happens next.

Michigan Governor John Engler has been appearing with Bush in an effort to cement Bush's status as the front-runner after Bush's crucial win Saturday in South Carolina. Bush has clearly been re- energized after his hard-won victory over McCain just a couple days ago.


GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There's something in this air in this state called Michigan, yes.


I want to thank you all for coming. Let me tell you what I feel. I've been traveling all across this state. Let me tell you what my senses are. I feel victory here in Michigan. I want to thank you all for coming.




BUSH: If you are sick and tired of the politics of Washington, D.C., the gridlock, if you want a leader who can unite America, not divide us, there's a home for you in this campaign. I've been traveling your state saying this: If you want somebody to appeal to the better angels of America, not our darker impulses, if you're interested in somebody to lift the sights and spirits of America, come and join this campaign.


(END VIDEO CLIP) LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: While George W. Bush has been sounding conciliatory since South Carolina, John McCain has been sounding more defiant and combative. CNN's John King is with the McCain campaign in Saginaw, Michigan today -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The feisty tone from Senator McCain, Lou, reflecting the stakes here in Michigan. Senator McCain desperately needs a win here to get his campaign back on track, get back some of the momentum he had after his big win in the New Hampshire primary.

A short time ago, the senator was here in Saginaw speaking to an audience predominantly of high school students. So he was, as is traditional, a little less partisan in his speech to the students, but he tried to relate in terms that they might understand that he is the underdog in this race, and in his view under attack from the establishment of the Republican Party.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: But let me tell you what this campaign is about, my friends. All of you saw "Star Wars." right? OK.


All right. All right.

I'm just like -- I'm just like Luke Skywalker trying to get out of the Death Star. I'm telling you. They're shooting at me from everywhere. Everybody is against me: Governor Engler, Governor Bush, all the governors, all the senators. But we're going to kill them, right; we're going to get them.


I'm getting out of the Death Star, and we're going to win this election. And they've got to get out there and win, right?


KING: Earlier today in Traverse City, he was much more partisan, criticizing Governor Bush on taxes and spending, saying Governor Bush wants to give a big tax cut to the wealthy while Senator McCain says his will go to working families, saying Governor Bush puts nothing aside to shore up Social Security or Medicare or to pay down the national debt.

He also took issue with the tone of the campaign, trying to make the race here in Michigan, as he did in South Carolina, a referendum on negative campaigning.


MCCAIN: I want to be president in the best way, not the worst way. I want to take the high road and not the low road. And I'm not pandering to anybody, and I'm not running any attack ads, and I'm not running any negative campaign.

You look today on your television set, there's two -- there's two ads that are being run by my campaign, both positive ads with my vision for the future. There are two ads run by the Bush campaign. They're attack ads on me.

My friends, reject this negative campaigning. Reject this character assassination. Reject the low road to the presidency and support those who want to take the high road.


KING: Now regardless of the results here in Michigan, tomorrow top McCain advisers say the senator is in the race at least through March 7th, when California and a dozen other states vote. But they say a win here in Michigan very desperately needed so that the senator can make the case that he's the Republican best positioned to go against the Democrats in the fall.

Michigan, a key electoral battleground in November, and if John McCain loses it tomorrow, it will make his argument against George W. Bush all the more difficult -- Lou.

WATERS: John, is the McCain campaign giving you any analysis of what they think went wrong in South Carolina?

KING: Well, certainly they think that Governor Bush did a good job. They will criticize him for it in other parts of the country, but they think Governor Bush did a very good job appealing to the Christian Conservatives, who are the biggest constituency in the South Carolina Republican Party. And in a sense, they think Senator McCain helped that by trying so publicly to draw independents and Democrats into the South Carolina primary. They believe he at the same time encouraged core conservative Republicans to turn out.

They also think he made a mistake, the McCain camp does, in running a tough TV ad comparing Governor Bush to President Clinton on the issue of trustworthiness. That ended up spiraling the debate into a debate about tactics.

When you're the outsider trying to run an underdog candidate based on a message of reform, the last thing you want to talk about is political tactics -- Lou.

WATERS: All right, John King with the McCain campaign in Saginaw, Michigan. And CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider is with us, and maybe you can add to what John was saying about what went wrong in South Carolina, what are we seeing that's being done differently in each of the campaigns today in Michigan.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Lou, you just heard John McCain say that he's Luke Skywalker. Well, what happened in South Carolina was the "empire struck back." He's made war on the Republican Party empire, and they felt threatened by him, because he said he's going to bring in all of these Democrats and all of these independents, and we're going to make war on the party, it has to change. And the party said, well, forget that. They fought back and they defeated John McCain. And of course, the governor of Michigan, John Engler -- I think he's a third-term governor -- he's also supporting George Bush. And in a way, he represents the Republican establishment. So McCain's trying to do the same thing.

It's hard to fight the empire.

WATERS: Is the empire as strong in Michigan as it was in South Carolina? This is a different kind of a place, is it not?

SCHNEIDER: It is different, but still it's a state with a lot of hard-core Republican. John Engler has a lot of people who will come out to vote to support the people he wants them to support.

It is similar to South Carolina in one respect. Democrats and independents can vote in the Republican primary there, and McCain is trying to bring them into that race.

It looks pretty close right now. It's not quite as conservative as South Carolina. But McCain is trying to do something very unusual, almost I'd say unprecedented. He's trying to win a party's nomination by bringing in outsiders to vote for him, and the people who represent the base of the party resent that.

WATERS: What about Bush? I was reading in The New York Times today about the price he will have to pay for the way he ran his campaign in South Carolina, by running right and spending all of that money.

Is that going to come back to haunt him, do you think? Or is he -- if he wins Michigan, is it pretty well sealed up?

SCHNEIDER: Well, you know, it's interesting: Bush thought he was presenting a new face to the Republican Party: open, expansive, passionate, conservative, inclusive. And then here comes John McCain, who's more open, more inclusive, more expansive.

Well, Republicans, of course, went with Bush, because they felt better protected by him. The question is, does he look too much like a typical Republican in the sense that Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole presented a face of the party that was too conservative, too right wing, too harsh.

Well, maybe. In South Carolina, he risked doing that, but he might have had to do it to win that primary. His calculation is there's plenty of time between now and November. He's got a convention speech, he's got debates, he's got plenty of time perhaps to adjust his image a bit more to the center.

WATERS: You said something earlier today when we were talking that I found fascinating, and that was, if McCain should stumble, other than Bush being a direct beneficiary of that, Bill Bradley also would be a beneficiary of that because of the pledge, the reform pledge that Bradley and McCain took jointly.

SCHNEIDER: Yes, that's right. Remember, in New Hampshire just a couple of months ago, McCain and Bradley shook hands on a deal that if they were the nominees, they would both support campaign finance reform: a very unusual event in that it involved candidates from competing parties making a deal to support the same legislation. Well, when McCain won New Hampshire and Bradley lost, all the steam ran out of the Bradley campaign, and McCain became the sensation. In a way, he sucked the oxygen out of the atmosphere and Bradley was left gasping for air.

Well, if McCain is defeated in Michigan, even if he wins Arizona, which he's expected to win, if he's defeating in Michigan, then a lot of reform voters around the country are going to say, now, wait a minute, what happened to this big reform cause, we kind of liked McCain. And they may take another look at Bill Bradley and say he's the one who can pick up that banner, because after all he's the one who made a deal with John McCain.

That's what Bradley is hoping for to give him another act in this drama.

WATERS: That begs the question: Are there many reform voters in the country?

SCHNEIDER: Well, there are, but the problem is they don't fit neatly into the Republican Party. Democrats seem to be pretty happy with Al Gore. They don't fit into any particular party. So both McCain and Bradley are trying to take a stab at bringing them into their party so that they can win the nomination.

It's an odd thing to do, to bring in outsiders, but both McCain and Bradley do best with independents.

In a way, you know, the Reform Party, Reform Party has said, we'd like McCain as our nominee, maybe. If Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan don't make it, we're thinking about McCain, because it's an appeal that cuts right across party lines.

WATERS: We're going to have -- we haven't heard from the Democrats in quite some time because of this McCain sensation and the tight Republican race. But they are having a debate tonight in Harlem at the Apollo Theater. What's going on in the Republican -- Democratic race?

SCHNEIDER: Democratic race. Nothing is going on in the Democratic race. That's why Bill Bradley is so frustrated; people aren't paying much attention. He's hoping to gather some attention with the debate tonight, with a beauty contest next week in Washington, because, look, the Democrats don't do anything really serious until March 7th when one-third of the delegates will be chosen. That's when Bill Bradley has to win at least one of two significant states just to stay in this race.

WATERS: All right. CNN's political analyst, Bill Schneider.


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