Texas Gov. George W. Bush has found a message he believes will resonate with the voters and he's going to take it right to the guy who's emerging as his main rival for the GOP nomination: Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
But he's going to be nice about it.
Bush will be talking up his billion tax cut plan in South Carolina today, highlighting the all the goodies in the package for working-class people and others of modest income. The campaign said Bush would appear at an event there with some South Carolina families -- regular working folk -- who would be helped by his plan. While Bush is not going to criticize McCain explicitly, Bush aides acknowledge that the focus is designed to highlight what they consider to be the governor's superior stand on the issue.
Bush campaign aides said cutting taxes is the one topic that unites Republicans of all sorts -- although polls show little clamoring for tax cuts among the general public. Bush has proposed cutting marginal tax rates in all categories, reducing the marriage tax penalty and increasing the child tax deduction.
On Tuesday, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer appeared on MSNBC's "Equal Time" with McCain official Rick Davis, who proclaimed that "we haven't announced our tax plan yet." Yesterday, Fleischer produced evidence that he said showed that McCain had indeed announced his tax cut plan way back this summer. The evidence included newspaper stories that covered the McCain tax cut announcement in Columbia, S.C. At that time, McCain announced a $161 billion plan that, among other things, would eliminate the marriage tax penalty and raise the income ceiling for the minimum 15 percent tax bracket from $25,350 to $35,000 for single taxpayers and from $42,350 to $70,000 for married couples.
Fleischer also produced copies of the tax section of McCain's campaign website, which had recently been changed. The previous version detailed "The McCain Plan" on taxes, citing the plan McCain offered this summer. The new version said, "Senator McCain will propose a tax relief plan in January." Why is he now denying that he already has plan, Fleischer asks rhetorically in an interview. Well, why do you think, Ari, a reporter asks. Fleischer shrugs: "I don't know." The implication of course is that the Bush's plan was so obviously superior, McCain is planning to regroup and come up with something next month that trumps Bush.
"It seems the straight talk is a little more circular now," Fleischer said, adding that on the other hand, "Gov. Bush has a tax plan and he's proud to talk about it everywhere he goes." Fleischer's somewhat caustic comments aside, the spokesman insisted Bush was going to be a perfect gentleman in engaging McCain.
All of this, not surprisingly, did not sit well with the McCain camp. McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky said yesterday that the plan McCain offered this summer was made during the GOP tax cut debate and was his vision for an immediate tax bill. He never meant that to be considered his presidential tax cut platform. He said the Bush campaign seems to be arguing that its proposal is better just because they offered the most detailed plan first.
"I don't think the timing of your plan gives you any specific advantage," Opinsky said. "I think the details of the plan are what's important. The Bush plan doesn't seem to address Social Security while it spends all of the money in the surplus and doesn't extend the permanent ban on Internet taxes."
McCain will offer his much more responsible, broad tax cut plan in January before the Iowa caucus, Opinsky said.
On his own schedule, thank you very much.