Bush, Allies Hit McCain's Conservative Credentials
Abortion, Tax Stands Draw Fire as S.C. Primary Nears
By Thomas B. Edsall and Terry M. Neal
The anti-McCain onslaught, which is approaching a crescendo as primary day approaches Saturday, includes taped telephone calls beginning today to 100,000 voters from conservative icon Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), who lauds Bush's "strong pro-life record in Texas" while implicitly criticizing McCain for recommending changes in the GOP anti-abortion platform.
A mass mailing to South Carolina voters from the National Right to Life Committee warns that McCain "voted repeatedly to use tax dollars for experiments that use body parts from aborted babies." The pro-tobacco National Smokers Alliance plans a new round of radio ads taking McCain to task for voting to raise cigarette prices and concluding, "If straight talk is the issue, John McCain isn't the answer."
With polls showing a tight race here, Bush enjoys a distinct tactical advantage over McCain. Because Bush decided not to take federal funds, he can spend unlimited amounts of money in the state, while McCain faces a spending cap. And as Bush's campaign has faltered, an array of conservative groups have come in to reinforce Bush's message with phone banks, radio ads and mailings of their own.
The groups say they are working independently of the Bush campaign, in order to avoid violating federal rules restricting coordination between campaigns and outside groups.
Meanwhile, influential social conservative figures such as Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh have joined the assault in recent days. Robertson suggested on Sunday's CNN "Late Edition" that social conservatives would abandon the party in droves in November if McCain were the party's nominee.
Richard Quinn, McCain's South Carolina manager, contended the "whole purpose" of the attack on McCain is part of a calculated strategy "to suppress the vote." He argued that "if it succeeds, what they [the Bush campaign] will have is a trophy full of blood"--a victory so wounding that Bush will not be a credible general election candidate.
The Bush campaign said it is not trying to damage McCain or suppress the vote, merely to inform voters about their differences. "I think that those judgments are best left up to the voters," said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer. "Those are decisions that the people will make."
The McCain campaign said Bush and his allies were distorting McCain's anti-abortion record and pointed to the National Right to Life Committee's own voting evaluations, which gave the senator between an 80 and 100 percent rating throughout the 1990s.
"I think there's a dynamic going on that they made a commitment early on to George Bush on his perceived inevitability," said Cyndi Mosteller, a member of McCain's national steering committee as well as a member of the state chapter of National Right to Life. Now, she said, the groups are "protecting themselves in a save-face position. And they are now willing to attack John McCain."
The Hyde telephone calls, paid for by the Bush campaign, praise the Texas governor for helping pass "a parental notification bill that is a model for the nation."
Hyde makes only an elliptical reference to McCain, saying "It has been suggested that changes be made to the party platform on the life issue"--a reference to McCain's suggestion that the GOP's anti-abortion plank be modified to include exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother.
While the call doesn't explicitly mention McCain, a Bush campaign official said, "there's not going to be a lot of ambiguity about this by the time it's all over."
A similar radio ad has been running since late last week on statewide conservative talk radio--including Limbaugh's, Laura Schlesinger's and G. Gordon Liddy's shows--and evangelical programs. The Bush campaign has chosen radio and phone banking to focus its abortion message narrowly to social conservative audiences instead of using television, which would go to a broader audience and perhaps turn off independents and Democrats who can vote in Saturday's Republican primary.
The National Right to Life Committee's political action committee has spent more than $27,000 on radio ads in South Carolina supporting Bush, according to Federal Election Commission filings. A National Right To Life mailer to South Carolina voters features a picture of a baby on front and the message: "This little guy wants you to vote for George Bush."
"In every case where you compare the two candidates, Bush is the more pro-life candidate," said the group's executive director, David O'Steen. The group has also been feuding with McCain over his proposals for overhauling campaign finance laws.
The National Smokers Alliance, which receives funding from the tobacco industry, is launching television ads in Virginia and Michigan along with the South Carolina radio spots. On Friday, the group ended an earlier round of TV ads in South Carolina, which cost $25,000 and ran 1,000 times.
All the group's commercials say McCain is distorting his record in pushing anti-cigarette legislation in 1998. McCain has said he's never voted for a tax increase, but the organization says his bill's requirement that the price of a pack of cigarettes be raised $1.10 amounted to a tax hike.
The first set of ads ended with the line "Saying one thing and doing another, that's the real John McCain." But the organization changed that tag line because the Bush campaign started using almost the same lingo in attacking McCain, and wanted to avoid being accused of improper coordination with the Bush campaign.
Appearing Sunday on CNN, Robertson assaulted McCain's credentials as a reformer as "specious," saying "I know he comes through as Mr. Clean and Mr. Reformer. But the truth is, you go all the way back to the Keating Five, he took $110,000 from the infamous savings and loan swindler Charles Keating. We've got problems in his past of things like that."
With McCain as the GOP nominee, Robertson warned, "I think there'll be a defection of the Christian conservatives in major waves. I'm talking about a large portion of the Republican base would walk away."
Limbaugh recently proposed a Bush television commercial for South Carolina that would liken McCain to Clinton.
"Have people wearing Clinton-Gore buttons and T-shirts with liberal slogans on them, pro-abortion, pro-affirmative action," Limbaugh said. "And have these people with Clinton-Gore campaign buttons say 'That McCain sounds like one of us.' And the people in the ad would take off their Clinton-Gore campaign buttons and put on McCain buttons and head toward voting booths labeled 'Republican Primary.' Picture that, would that not be a powerful ad?"
A focus of the attacks on McCain have involved abortion--a somewhat curious issue since Bush had downplayed his anti-abortion credential earlier in the campaign, and the two candidates' stances are similar.
Fleischer reeled off a list of points where the Bush campaign thinks McCain could be vulnerable: McCain told the San Francisco Chronicle last summer that "in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade." He later said he misspoke. And in New Hampshire last month, McCain said that if his teenage daughter got pregnant, he would leave it up to her to decide whether to have an abortion.
Bush campaign officials also raised questions about McCain's vote to allow fetal tissue research for Parkinson's disease, which Bush opposes.
McCain aides accused Bush of exploiting trifling differences.
For instance, both candidates oppose abortion except in the case of rape, incest or when the mother's life is in danger. The GOP's abortion plank does not include those exceptions, and McCain has suggested it be changed to do so. Bush has said he would leave the language as is.
Also, Bush has made nearly identical statements to the one McCain made about letting his daughter chose whether to have an abortion. In a news conference last month, Bush was asked how he would advise a friend or family member who got pregnant. Bush responded, "It would be up to her."
The McCain camp points out that the vote on the 1993 fetal tissue measure was 93-4. Among those who voted in favor of it was Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond, who has endorsed and campaigned for Bush in South Carolina.
But the McCain campaign today resumed airing a television ad that has conservative Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) vouching for McCain's "17-year pro-life voting record."
Staff writers John Mintz and Ben White contributed to this report.
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