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Talk of tax plans dominates Republican debate in Iowa

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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 16, 2000

JOHNSTON, Iowa -- In a campaign in search of a theme, six Republican presidential candidates are trying to create one.


Not whether to cut, but how much.

Not just how much, but how.

The Republicans, in their final debate before the Jan. 24 Iowa caucuses, picked apart each other's tax-cut proposals Saturday with the thoroughness of accountants.

Front-runner Texas Gov. George W. Bush found himself caught in the middle.

Arizona Sen. John McCain argued that Bush's tax cuts, $483-billion over five years, go too far and do not earmark money to reducing the federal debt or protecting Social Security. He described Bush's bookkeeping as the equivalent of "the Texas two-step." McCain has proposed a more modest tax cut, contending that 60 percent of the budget surplus ought to be earmarked to reducing the debt.

But publisher Steve Forbes, who wants to scrap the tax code and replace it with a 17 percent flat tax, countered that Bush's proposal doesn't go far enough. Forbes also accused the governor of breaking an anti-tax pledge in Texas by mixing specific tax increases in a package that produced an overall tax cut.

Bush vigorously defended his campaign proposal and attacked McCain's proposed tax cuts. He said the two large tax cuts in Texas that he signed into law have had an impact.

"It's really real for a lot of folks who live in my state," Bush said of the Texas tax cuts.

Aside from the sparring over tax cuts, the televised debate sponsored by the Des Moines Register was rather sedate for the last meeting of the candidates before the caucuses. The 90-minute debate dragged in spots and did not produce either the animated exchanges or the humorous quips that marked some recent gatherings.

All six candidates agreed that long-term health care should be more accessible and affordable. Responding to a question from a community college student about injecting Christianity into public education, the candidates all said they have no problem with posting the Ten Commandments in public classrooms.

"There is nothing wrong with the Ten Commandments," said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. "We should not be so doggone sensitive."

Whether the topic was health care or education, foreign policy or taxes, the Republicans also took turns beating up on the Clinton administration and Democratic challengers Al Gore and Bill Bradley.

Heading into the final week before the caucuses, Bush holds a comfortable lead here. McCain, who leads Bush in the first-primary state of New Hampshire, is not competing in Iowa. That leaves four remaining candidates hoping to perform well enough here to build momentum in their flagging campaigns: Forbes, Hatch, conservative activist Gary Bauer and radio commentator Alan Keyes.

Among those second-tier candidates, the jockeying offered a game-within-a-game Saturday as each tried to shore up support among social conservatives.

Forbes and Bauer debated the finer points of their separate flat-tax plans and emphasized their opposition to abortion rights. Hatch mentioned his support for a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning. Keyes used part of his time for a final statement to lead the group in prayer.

Despite Bush's advantage, there is concern in his campaign and among his supporters that Forbes and McCain are beginning to beat him up too much.

Bush is airing a television ad in Iowa in which he looks directly into the camera and rebuts criticism from the two challengers: "One of my opponents says my tax cut for America is too big, too bold. Another has raised questions about my record. They're both wrong. In Texas, you're only as good as your word."

The Republican Leadership Council, an independent group, is airing another ad criticizing Forbes for negative campaigning. And on Saturday, Bob Dole had an ad in the Des Moines Register warning that negative ads could wound a Republican nominee headed into a general election.

Dole should know.

Negative ads that Forbes ran against Dole in Iowa and elsewhere in 1996 left Dole too broke and wounded to effectively compete against Clinton.

Forbes, who is airing an ad featuring a Texas woman contending that Bush broke his no-tax pledge as governor, made no apologies after Saturday's debate.

"That ad is simply part of the establishment's attempt to create a coronation," Forbes said of the Dole newspaper ad.

During the debate, Bush diffused a couple of potentially explosive questions.

Bush was asked by Keyes why he had not done anything about El Cenizo, a small Texas border town that passed an ordinance requiring all city meetings and business to be conducted in Spanish.

The Texas governor, who has reached out to Hispanic Democrats, began by saying in Spanish, "That's not true." In English, he said he has expressed concern and that he wants children to learn English -- but he did not say the town should stop using Spanish.

"English is the great language that provides freedom and opportunity," Bush said. "Plus, we respect other people's heritage in this country."

Responding to a question related to the controversy over the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina state capitol, Bush toughened his criticism of a state legislator's derogatory remarks about the NAACP. The Texas governor, who contends it should be left to South Carolina residents to resolve the flag issue, said the "comments are out of line, and we should repudiate them."

Bush triggered the tax-cut discussion by attacking McCain's proposal. He said McCain would raise $40-billion over five years for tax cuts by taxing such employer-paid fringe benefits as education classes, parking and moving expenses.

Under McCain's plan, corporate payments for dependent care and health care premiums would remain exempt from taxes.

The Texas governor asked McCain what he would tell a single mother who is working and going to school and who would have to pay taxes on the education benefit.

"The first thing I would say to that woman is, "I've got a tax cut for you and Gov. Bush doesn't,' " McCain replied. "Gov. Bush's plan has not one penny for Social Security, not one penny for Medicare and not one penny to pay down the national debt."

McCain said taxpayers will benefit if all of those issues are addressed. He called a Bush ad claiming the Texas governor will protect Social Security "all hat and no cattle."

"That's cute," Bush said.

"They're always cute," McCain said, "when they're true."

Finished Bush: "That's not true."

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