McCain lauds 1 Bush, raps other
By WES ALLISON and STEVE BOUSQUET
He hasn't changed.
Campaigning for Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday morning at the Bayfront Center, McCain told military veterans the governor has done a good job.
"I'm here for one reason," he began, "and that is to support the re-election of Gov. Jeb Bush ."
But with Bush's plane grounded by fog in Tallahassee and three dozen old soldiers before him, it didn't take long for McCain to speak his mind on other issues.
Responding to questions from the audience as he often did during his own campaign, he wound up criticizing the man who defeated him for the 2000 Republican nomination for president: Bush's older brother, the president.
McCain criticized President Bush for blocking a plan to allow career soldiers to receive both retirement and disability pay. "The White House has been the biggest barrier," the Arizona senator said.
He didn't stop there.
McCain also blamed the president for helping foil a Senate plan to make generic drugs more accessible.
And after joining Gov. Bush at an American Legion hall in Punta Gorda, he railed against the infusion of unlimited soft money from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals to state political parties. McCain sponsored the landmark federal legislation that will ban soft money contributions to national political parties after the Nov. 5 election.
Soft money has made Bush's re-election campaign the most lavishly financed in Florida's history. Democrat Bill McBride has relied on money from the state teachers union to stay competitive.
"I would not presume to tell the state of Florida what to do," McCain told reporters. "But if you don't want the special interests to rule, you better have campaign finance reform, and it's as simple as that."
Bush appreciated McCain's kind endorsement and called him "an independent thinker." The governor ignored the criticism on a day that highlighted the 2002 political marriage between the rival Bush and McCain camps of 2000. McCain's media consultant and his spokesman from the presidential campaign now work for the Florida governor's re-election campaign.
About 40 people, mostly veterans, attended the hourlong rally at Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg featuring McCain; U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs; and Anthony Principi, the U.S. secretary of veterans affairs. Many wore "Jeb!" stickers, but several said they came to talk issues, not politics.
Most of the veterans' questions concerned federal legislation that would allow them to draw disability and retirement pay, known as concurrent receipt, a major issue among veterans groups.
Under an 1891 law, career military personnel who become partially disabled in the line of duty may draw retirement pay when they retire, but not disability pay.
They are the only federal employees banned from drawing both, and advocates contend the law is unfair.
Two proposals meant to address the situation are percolating in Congress. McCain backs a Senate bill giving disability and retirement benefits to all career veterans, which is expected to cost $58-billion during five years.
Bilirakis has sponsored a version in the House that would cost $8-billion during the same period.
The president has promised to veto any compromise, McCain and Bilirakis complained.
Bilirakis told the crowd that Gov. Bush watched his recent floor speech in support of the bill on television. He said the governor then called him at home and asked how he could help.
"I said that's easy, Jeb -- just call your brother," recounted Bilirakis, adding that before talking to the governor he had talked to Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser.
"Karl Rove is, well, I hate to get into that, but Karl Rove is being pretty hard-headed," he said. "We're fighting that battle."
Gov. Bush supports the House version, because he believes it's the one likely to pass. His opponent in the governor's race, Democrat Bill McBride , supports the Senate version. McBride is a decorated Marine who served in Vietnam.
McCain, a Navy pilot who spent more than five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, said he supports the Senate version but acknowledged the House bill would be a good place to start. Bilirakis said the Senate version has no funding.
"The governor is fighting for the only thing that's available right now, and that's the House version," Bilirakis said. "I dare say it would be a tremendous help to many people right now."
Bush wrote a letter last month calling the House version "the most fiscally responsible." In Punta Gorda, Bush said he was not familiar with all of the details.
"The details to me are not as important as reaching consensus," the governor said. "I don't know what the budget parameters are these days in Congress and the administration."
The governor also touted his support of federal and state initiatives to spend more money and resources for helping veterans. They included two state-owned nursing homes expected to open next year and an additional $5,000 annual property tax exemption for disabled veterans.
In Fort Myers Tuesday, McBride said it's inexcusable for military retirees to be treated less generously than other federal retirees.
He campaigned throughout South Florida with Ralph Quallen, a former machine-gunner from McBride's Marine platoon. Three decades ago, McBride helped evacuate Quallen after he lost a leg in a firefight.
"John McCain's a good man, and I appreciate his service, but he doesn't know Bill McBride ," Quallen said. "I know him and what kind of leader he is."
McCain was complimentary about the president's handling of Iraq. Saddam Hussein is a real threat, he said, and he predicted Bush would get the international support for an attack that he's been seeking.
"He's done the right thing, and he does not take his responsibility lightly," McCain said. "The last thing this president wants, or any president wants, is to send young Americans into harm's way, because we know we'll lose some."
-- Times political editor Adam Smith contributed to this report.
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