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Hot Context: The Republican Primary Race

February 28, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: Texas Governor George W. Bush spent much of this weekend trying to dampen fresh criticism of his visit three weeks ago to Christian conservative Bob Jones University while campaigning during the South Carolina primary.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: I said I regretted a missed opportunity when I did not speak out against the anti-Catholic bias of that university. In retrospect, I wish I had — clearly condemned the sentiments that pit one religion against another, the sentiments that condemn a great religion in America. My record is a positive and strong record. Ultimately the people of this country are going to know my heart and my record.

KWAME HOLMAN: Bush spoke to a large crowd at Bob Jones, a school that prohibits interracial dating and whose officials have criticized the Catholic faith. Bush did not challenge those positions during his speech. Leaving Texas to campaign in Washington State yesterday, bush announced he had sent a letter to John Cardinal O’Connor, the archbishop of New York. New York holds its presidential primary March 7. Bush said in part: “Some have taken and mistaken this visit as a sign that I approve of the anti-Catholic and racially divisive views associated with that school. Such opinions are personally offensive to me, and I want to erase any doubts about my views and values.” After Bush won decisively in South Carolina, his main opponent, Arizona Senator John McCain, used the university visit to criticize Bush in phone calls made to Catholic voters in Michigan. Bush in turn accused McCain of branding him anti-Catholic.

SPOKESMAN: Now from Washington…

KWAME HOLMAN: Yesterday on ABC’s “This Week,” McCain denied the charge.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Sorry, Governor, if you look… And I hope you have the transcript there of what the phone call said, it said exactly what is the fact, and that is he went to this university. They had a mandatory attendance of 6,000 students there. At that time, he could have said, look, stop this kind of idiocy, this cruelty that you are practicing. Instead, he just gave a normal speech, and that, in my view, is what people should know about. But there was no charge in that transcript of those phone calls that said he was anti-Catholic or anything else — except to point out that people who go to places like that and don’t protest their policies, then obviously, maybe some people may not think that’s a good thing to do.

KWAME HOLMAN: But McCain ratcheted up his accusations against Bush this morning in Virginia, which along with Washington State and North Dakota holds its Republican voting tomorrow. McCain accused Bush of siding with the far right in the Republican Party.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: My friends, I am a Reagan Republican who will defeat Al Gore. (Cheers and applause) Unfortunately, Governor Bush is a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore. (Cheers and applause) I recognize and celebrate that our country is founded upon Judeo-Christian values, and I have pledged my life to defend America and all her values, the values that have made us the noblest experiment in history. But political intolerance by any political party is neither a Judeo-Christian nor an American value. (Applause) The political tactics of division and slander are not our values. (Applause) They are corrupting influences on religion and politics and those who practice them in the name of religion or in the name of the Republican Party or in the name of America, shame our faith, our party and our country. (Applause) 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.

KWAME HOLMAN: At a news conference after his speech in Bellvue, Washington, this afternoon, Bush struck back.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: It sounds like Senator McCain has taken to name-calling, needless name-calling. I’m a problem-solver. Sounds like he’s a finger-pointer. I’m a person who has a restraining order of reform — a person that can proudly talk about educational excellence in my state. Senator McCain is someone who likes to castigate. I’m someone who wants to lead. It’s important to unite our party and lead us to victory. I’m the one candidate who can do that. The Republican Party needs to nominate somebody who is a uniter, somebody who cannot only unite our party and lead us to victory but unite the country and lead us to a better tomorrow. He invokes the name of Ronald Reagan, and yet at the same time plays upon people’s religious fears, and that’s not the politics of Ronald Reagan. I remember.

KWAME HOLMAN: In the midst of this latest conflict, the two leading Republicans will hear from voters in North Dakota, Virginia and Washington state tomorrow.