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The Conservative Press, Standing Divided for Bush

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 1, 2000; Page C01

When Rush Limbaugh was visiting his mother in Cape Girardeau, Mo., last August, George W. Bush, in town for a fund-raiser, made a point of stopping by.

"We chewed the fat," says Limbaugh, who first met Bush at a Christmas party in his father's White House. "I warned him that there is a high level of disgust and anger in the ranks of the Republican Party." Bush also granted Limbaugh an interview last month for his newsletter, while John McCain turned him down.

The influential radio host has been denouncing McCain on a daily basis, accusing him of "dividing people" and engaging in "Clintonesque exploitation par excellence." And these attacks, Limbaugh says, are grounded in ideology, not personality.

"When I hear McCain using liberal rhetoric to bust up the conservative coalition, I think, what the hell is this?" Limbaugh says. "This guy's a Republican. . . . I'm just an honest-to-God thoroughbred conservative, and I don't see McCain as that."

The Arizona senator may enjoy a cozy relationship with the mainstream press, but Limbaugh and most other conservative commentators--whose voices are arguably more important in GOP primaries--are squarely in Bush's corner. Robert Novak, George Will, Paul Gigot, National Review and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, among others, have rallied behind the Texas governor while skewering McCain in unusually personal terms.

Most reporters "really don't like Bush very much," Novak says. "They make fun of him. There's a tendency of the media to ridicule the most conservative candidate in the field."

Bush has been courting conservative pundits by, for example, hosting the Journal's editorial board and National Review editors in Austin. But when asked what they like about Bush, some of these commentators seem to say mainly that he's better than the other guy.

"Bush has become the default option," says John Fund, a member of the Journal's editorial board. "It's not that everyone's wildly enthusiastic about him. They have grown comfortable with him. He's had a successful, though not as successful as advertised, record as governor of Texas."

"Bush is better than he's been depicted, but not as good as he was cut out to be when he was first anointed," Novak says.

"Our enthusiasm for him has never reached the level where we wanted to endorse him or jump in with both feet," says Rich Lowry, editor of National Review. "We have been very forthright about his weaknesses and failings, but we have been steadily more sympathetic to him as he's become the plausible conservative candidate in the race."

As for McCain and the liberal press, Lowry says, the view is that "if Jonathan Alter loves the guy, if Al Hunt loves the guy, there must be something wrong with him."

McCain has a smaller conservative cheering section, which includes Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, the New York Post editorial page and, on occasion, New York Times columnist William Safire. But the strongest words seem to come from the other side. Just yesterday, Washington Times editor Wesley Pruden accused McCain of "bombing the Republican Party" with his attacks on Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

"The ferocity of opposition to McCain is a little startling," Kristol says. "It's not like he's the most liberal guy in the Senate. I think it has something to do with his refusal to bend the knee to the orthodox conservative movement."

Some of this has led to sniping at the prognosticators themselves. Marvin Olasky, a University of Texas professor and Bush adviser, wrote in the Austin American-Statesman that McCain does not understand Christianity and that some of his journalistic supporters have "holes in their souls," "no understanding of God's grace" and practice "the religion of Zeus." Olasky named three who happen to be Jewish, including Kristol and Weekly Standard writer David Brooks.

Brooks says he wasn't offended by Olasky's broadside but is sometimes viewed by colleagues as "giving aid and comfort to the enemy." He says many conservatives backing Bush have a "movement mentality" in which "the main goal in politics is not to win elections but to make liberals suffer. What really bothers a lot of them about McCain is that he gets good press."

This split in the conservative media is a microcosm of the cultural war now engulfing the Republican Party. Many opinion-mongers are drawn to Bush--described by Fund as "incredibly charming one-on-one"--as the backslapping scion of one of the party's ruling families. Back in 1994, when Limbaugh needed some baseball tickets, Bush, then part owner of the Texas Rangers, made the arrangements, and they had lunch in the stadium club.

McCain, by contrast, is a maverick lawmaker who has long been at odds with his party and its media champions. Limbaugh says he had no problem with McCain in the past but never liked his push for campaign finance reform. Now, however, Limbaugh sees him as storming the gates.

"The Republican country-club, blue-blood establishment has always been embarrassed to go to cocktail parties and be in the same party as these gun-toting, Southern-accented pro-lifers," he says. McCain, says Limbaugh, is among the Republicans who "want to be liked and adored and praised by the media, and have concluded that the way to do it is to attack Republican policies and leaders."

Each of McCain's critics on the right seems to have a particular hot-button issue. For Novak, it's McCain criticizing Bush's tax plan as a giveaway to the rich, "a terrible sin for a Republican candidate," he says. For Limbaugh, the same rhetoric is nothing less than "class warfare." For the Journal, it's McCain "whipping up some old-fashioned Social Security demagoguery" by accusing Bush of devoting not one new penny to shore up the retirement system.

For Will, it's McCain's crusade for campaign finance reform, which the columnist regards as an unconstitutional assault on free speech. For National Review, it's the senator's attitude toward groups opposed to abortion.

"McCain's record in Congress is fairly conservative," says Lowry, whose magazine has run a cover story on "Wrong Way McCain." "But in this campaign he has gone out of his way to rub conservative noses in it. A great example is when he says pro-lifers are running a business, not a cause. Conservatives hear that and it makes them cringe."

Fund says the opposition to McCain is based largely on his two-fisted style. "McCain is an exciting story; he's a heroic figure," Fund says. "But from my reporting, John McCain does not play well enough with other children to get things done."

Whatever the reason, even Limbaugh says the party is being damaged. "We're eating ourselves alive in the midst of a power struggle, and McCain is the vessel for that," he says.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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