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Debate takes nasty turn

[AP photo]
Larry King, left, throws questions to Republican presidential candidates (from left) John McCain, Alan Keyes and George W. Bush.

©New York Times, published February 16, 2000

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- In a barely controlled debate that revealed the depth of their mutual anger, Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain lashed into each other's negative campaign tactics Tuesday night, refusing to drop the subject even when the moderator, Larry King, urged them to do so.

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At one point, McCain stated that Bush "should be ashamed" that a surrogate had accused McCain of abandoning the cause of veterans. Bush refused McCain's demand that he apologize, instead insisting that McCain stop impugning his integrity.

The debate, the last before Saturday's crucial South Carolina primary, was by far the most freewheeling and intense of the Republican contest so far. It ranged across nearly every issue that has come up in the Republican race, and then a few more. With only Alan Keyes sitting between them, the candidates argued forcefully over abortion, policy toward Russia, taxes, Social Security, the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military and the reform of the campaign finance law.

But their most heated exchanges came early in the 90-minute debate on CNN, when King asked about the conduct of the campaign. Bush immediately accused McCain of being first to break a promise not to run negative ads.

"We shook hands, and unfortunately he ran an ad that equated me to Bill Clinton," Bush said, sounding exasperated. "You can disagree on issues. We'll debate issues. But whatever you do, don't equate my integrity and trustworthiness to Bill Clinton. That's about as low a blow as you can give in a Republican primary."

McCain, steely but furious, immediately responded by citing an event early this month in Sumter, S.C., in which J. Thomas Burch Jr., chairman of the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Committee, complained that McCain had opposed measures dealing with both Agent Orange and Gulf War syndrome.

"I don't know if you can understand this, George, but that really hurts," McCain said. "You should be ashamed. You should be ashamed."

Keyes, the most conservative candidate in the field, had been expected to spend the evening criticizing McCain. Instead he worked to appear above the fray and condemned both of his opponents, saying there were more important issues to discuss than campaign tactics. King also tried to switch the subject, but McCain pressed on, demanding to tell about negative telephone calls about him that he said were being made to South Carolina voters by the Bush campaign.

Bush then pulled out a McCain flier criticizing his tax cut plan, accusing McCain of continuing his attacks despite a new vow to stop.

Unlike many of the earlier debates among the Republican contenders, a significant portion of the debate involved foreign policy questions. Both Bush and Keyes criticized American policy toward China.

McCain urged a particularly aggressive approach toward what he called rogue states.

"I'd institute a policy that I call rogue state rollback," he said. "I would arm, train, equip, both from without and from within, forces that would eventually overthrow the governments and install free and democratically elected governments." He added, "Until those governments are overthrown, they will pose a threat to U.S. national security."

Bush and McCain also tangled over when it was appropriate for the United States to intervene in foreign conflicts. Bush said he would authorize the use of armed forces when it is in the "nation's strategic interests."

He added: "Europe is in our national strategic interests. The Far East is in our national strategic interests. Our own hemisphere is in our national strategic interests. The Middle East -- protecting Israel -- is in our national strategic interest. And ... if for whatever reason somebody tries to block passage through the Panama Canal ... I will make sure the Panama Canal remains open for trade."

McCain told Bush his analysis "wasn't that simple," saying: "There are time when our principles and our values are so offended that we have to do what we can to resolve a terrible situation."

He added: "But we can never say that a nation driven by Judeo-Christian principles will only intervene where our interests are threatened, because we also have values."

The candidates sparred across a range of social issues. Keyes unleashed a scathing attack on Bush for campaigning at Bob Jones University and not condemning its policy banning interracial dating.

Bush said that it was not his place to criticize the policy but that he opposes it.

"My little brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, married a girl named Columba, a Mexican woman," Bush said. "She is a wonderful part of our family."

For his part McCain said wryly, "Well, Alan, I've taken a few risks in my life." He said he had not been invited to speak at Bob Jones. If he had, he said he would have started any speech by saying the ban on interracial dating "is stupid, it's idiotic and it's incredibly cruel for many people." He added that he has an adopted daughter from Bangladesh and that he would "stand up and fight against those" who would limit her life choices.

From there, the candidates segued into Bush's refusal to meet with the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay group. McCain said, "I, as president of the United States and as nominee of my party, will meet with, not necessarily agree with, every member of the Republican Party."

-- Information from the Orlando Sentinel was used in this report.

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