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  McCain Condemns Pat Robertson

By Mike Glover
Associated Press Writer
Monday, Feb. 28, 2000; 4:56 p.m. EST

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. –– The day before Virginia's GOP primary, John McCain accused some in his party of pandering to Christian right leaders "on the outer reaches of American politics." The biting remarks were designed to appeal to moderates voting in three states Tuesday, as well as in crucial contests next week.

His rival for the presidential nomination, George W. Bush, said McCain was trying to divide the party along religious lines. Bush repeated his criticism of telephone calls by the McCain campaign that try to link Bush to anti-Catholic sentiments.

McCain came to the heart of the religious conservative movement to criticize its "self-appointed leaders," but he clearly was aiming at a broader audience. Washington's primary is also Tuesday, and North Dakota holds a Republican caucus. California and New York are among more than a dozen states voting March 7.

"I am a Reagan Republican who will defeat Al Gore," McCain said. "Unfortunately George Bush is a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore."

Virginia Beach is headquarters for Robertson's Christian Coalition.

After his speech at a high school in Virginia, where polls put Bush ahead, McCain headed to Washington where the two are in a tight race.

In California, polls show Bush leading McCain by as much as 20 percentage points among likely Republican voters who will choose that state's delegates, although it put them neck-and-neck in the open primary's popular vote, which includes independents and Democrats.

After discussing education with teachers in Bellevue, Wash., Bush said he was the candidate who wants to stick to issues while McCain "obviously wants to divide people into camps."

"Ronald Reagan didn't point fingers," Bush told reporters. "He never played to people's religious fears like Senator McCain has shamelessly done."

The GOP race has focused on religious issues in recent days, with Bush expressing his regrets on Sunday to Catholic leaders for a visit to Bob Jones University, a South Carolina school accused of religious bigotry.

McCain said Bush waited too long.

"His words are fine," said McCain. "To me they should have been said three weeks ago."

Bush again criticized McCain for his campaign's telephone calls to Catholic voters to tell them about Bush's visit to the university. McCain spokesman Dan McLagan said calls like those made before Michigan's primary were also being made in Washington state.

As for McCain's speech Monday, aides described it as "a call to the grass roots" of the party. While McCain met with reporters to make it clear his remarks were aimed not at conservative voters but a handful of political players – he specifically criticized Robertson and Jerry Falwell – the tone of his speech sent a shock through the party.

McCain said he had been considering such a speech since a hard-hitting campaign in South Carolina, where he complained he was unfairly attacked. Aides said both Falwell and Robertson have criticized McCain and supporters in public statements.

"Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right," McCain said in his speech.

Roberta Combs, executive vice president of the Christian Coalition, which Robertson founded, called McCain's remarks "a transparent effort to divide one American from another on the basis of religion" and predicted the group's conservative message would draw record numbers of voters to the polls. There was no immediate response from Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority.

McCain said he wanted to make it clear to Christian voters that he has a conservative record on social issues and they could feel comfortable backing him, despite leaders of the movement who have called him unacceptable.

"We reject the practices of a few of the self-appointed leaders," said McCain, who suggested those leaders were backing Bush because he's the favorite and they want "to preserve their own political power at all costs."

Accompanying McCain was former rival Gary Bauer, highly regarded among religious conservatives.

"If this were an attack on Christian conservative voters, I wouldn't be here," said Bauer.

There were continued reverberations from McCain's decision not to take part in a scheduled debate on Thursday. McCain blamed Bush, arguing that Bush was initially evasive about accepting the debate invitation.

McCain said, given that evasiveness, he decided to schedule events in New York that can't be changed.

Bush said, "I'm sorry that we're not going to have the debate in Los Angeles. I would be glad to spend the entire time on education."

© Copyright 2000 The Associated Press

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