Bush bobs, McCain weaves

The two favorites fillabluster as Keyes steals the show.

Topics: George W. Bush, Republican Party, John McCain, R-Ariz.

You begin to wonder about your sanity when Alan Keyes starts making sense.

You wonder if you’re just spending too much time around politicians like Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain, relatively decent men who — as the mightily important South Carolina primary approaches — find their blood increasingly bubbling with hunger and oil. It gets into their speech and infiltrates their brains, so that you hear them contradicting themselves and things they said just days — or was it moments? — before.

They snipe and snip and spit and froth, and you start to read between the lines of even the most innocuous of statements and suspect that nothing is an accident — no joke, no chuckle, no curled lip or furrowed brow.

Did McCain mean to say he would go to Bob Jones University and berate its racist interracial-dating policy when just the other day he said he would never, ever go there? Does it matter? Did Bush mean to tar McCain with a brush slathered in pink paint by alleging (erroneously) that a gay Republican organization had endorsed him? Are McCain staffers handing out negative leaflets about Bush despite their candidate’s public admonition not to do so? When Bush said that his “ZIP code is Austin, Texas,” was he aware that “Austin, Texas” is not actually a ZIP code?

And then you start to wonder that maybe it’s you — maybe you’re the one with the problem. You’re looking too closely at the nonsense and not enough at the substance. And then you have a conversation with a media critic of a media critic who hosts a cable TV round-table with a cast of media critics and everyone agrees that the voters like the nonsense, they love the nonsense, they need the nonsense. And then James Fallows and Bernie Kalb and the late Fred Friendly appear before you in a post-debate hallucination and berate you for becoming one of “them.” And everything inside you says you must flee the bubble, if for no other reason than because Keyes — stolid, consistent, brilliant, unafraid of losing because his loss is already a foregone conclusion — is starting to seem like the sanest man in the room.

But before you can, you have to write this South Carolina debate story.

The field of GOP candidates has been winnowed since the last GOP debate, so only Keyes, Bush and McCain sat with CNN’s Larry King in Seawell’s Banquet Center for the South Carolina Business & Industry Political Education Committee (BIPEC) presidential debate Tuesday night. Bush was forceful, if snippy and vague. McCain was statesmanlike, if wobbly and occasionally off.

And Keyes? Well, Keyes, according to 46 South Carolina Republican primary voters assembled by the interactive research firm SpeakOut.com, clearly won the debate. Using a hand-held device gauged from 1 to 100, Keyes scored the highest ratings of the night when he easily rose above McCain and Bush midsquabble and berated them for sinking in the mud. (Interestingly, Keyes replicated his score once again when taking African-American criminals to task for introducing the concept of racial profiling to modern law enforcement.)

Bush and McCain, conversely, were mired in arguments about who went negative against whom when, whose comparison of the other to Clinton or Gore was meanest and who first broke a pledge not to go negative. The Arizona senator and the Texas governor exuded bitterness, ill will, sleep deprivation and a deep and abiding lust not to lose in this all-important primary state. In a way, it was an honest representation of the ugly campaign that quickly emerged here after McCain’s startling 19-point win in the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 1.

After New Hampshire, McCain and Bush were neck and neck in the polls here, but the hardscrabble politics of South Carolina have wreaked havoc on the insurgent. Bush pulled ahead of McCain 49 percent to 42 percent, with Keyes drawing 5 percent, according to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll taken Friday through Sunday.

Thus a lot was at stake, and it was in the hands of Larry King.

King took up the first section of the debate quizzing the candidates on their positions on world affairs. Normally this is an area where McCain shines. But the wear and tear of the campaign and his advisors’ tutorials have had a positive effect on Bush, and his serious expressions, clear enunciation and more-than-cursory familiarity with the issues bring him into the playing field with McCain, if not resulting in parity. And while still absent is his winkin’ and smirkin’ when talkin’ about “nu-kew-lar” weapons, Bush could be seen weighing an odd grimace, as if he was sucking on a Sour Patch Kid while McCain delved into his thoughts on Vladimir Putin.

Keyes, meanwhile, weighed in against the World Trade Organization and questioned aloud how his opponents could share such varying policies on China and Russia. “If we’re going to talk that way,” Keyes said during a McCain riff on Russia, “then I think were going to have to apply that to China as well.” All three candidates offered their own doctrines — the Keyes doctrine, which is somewhat isolationist; the McCain doctrine, which is “Wilsonian”; and the Bush one, which seems to be somewhere in the middle.

King next asked Keyes, as a “neutral bystander,” to weigh in on the mud-wrestling match of his opponents. “Frankly, I haven’t given their campaigns a thought,” Keyes said. Candidates who spend their time “beating up on somebody else” are only showing that they “don’t have much to say themselves,” he said.

And then Bush and McCain spent their time beating up on each other. “It’s kind of politics,” Bush acknowledged before explaining that he went negative because he had “smiled my way through the early primaries” but was offended when a McCain TV ad equated his “integrity and trustworthiness to Bill Clinton.”

McCain countered that when Bush stood next to “fringe veteran” Thomas Burch, who slammed McCain for ignoring veterans’ issues, and then refused to dispute Burch’s claim, he “went over the line.” With a veiled snipe — saying that he didn’t expect former National Guardsman Bush to understand — he added, “That really hurts.” Noting that Burch had once berated Bush’s dad, McCain said, “You should be ashamed of sponsoring an event with a man who attacked your own father.”

Bush said he can’t control what his friends and supporters say. He then observed that McCain backer and former New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman had once made disparaging comments about members of the Christian Coalition.

And then Keyes, a breath of fresh air (who knew?), whisked in and, noting that the debate could be seen in 202 countries, asked: “Is this kind of pointless squabbling really what we want them to see?”

“Let me finish,” said McCain, who recalled the ugly back-and-forth, and the disgusting “push-polls,” he says led to his decision to take down his negative ads. Ever the savvy, postmodern pol, McCain has been trying to go negative on Bush by pointing out how negative Bush and his supporters and surrogates have been. But then Bush, brandishing a negative pamphlet by McCain 2000, called him on the point.

“Once it starts, it’s almost impossible to end,” Keyes noted, somehow simultaneously sad and smug.

Minutes later, he would slam McCain for packing a rally by having his campaign serve free beer to 300 college students, including many who were underage.

King ran through a few other issues besides the incessant whining from the stage. Bush was asked to explain his new proposal for campaign finance reform, while McCain knocked it as a “billion-dollar loophole” for not banning soft-money contributions from individuals. Keyes knocked them both for not just allowing his “very simple system”: “no dollar vote without a ballot vote,” immediate disclosure and “no limits whatsoever.”

Keyes berated Bush for going to Bob Jones University and “taking the applause” while “risking nothing because you refuse to raise the issue” of the college’s controversial policies. He also slammed McCain for “getting on [his] high horse” and refusing to even go. Keyes says he, in contrast, went into the belly of the beast on Monday and challenged the school to change its policies. “Which is the better leader?” he asked.

McCain said that he hadn’t been invited to the school but if he had he would have said, “Look, what you’re doing on this ban on interracial dating is stupid, it’s idiotic, and it’s incredibly cruel.”

King then asked Bush why he would speak at Bob Jones but refuse to speak to the Log Cabin Society, a group of gay Republicans.

“They made a commitment for John McCain,” Bush said. The group actually has not made any endorsement.

Keyes, meanwhile, chimed in that homosexuality is “a sin” and said he would restore the ban on gays in the military.

On another hot-button social issue that McCain and Bush try to haze over — abortion — McCain asked Bush how he could support exceptions to an abortion ban in cases of rape, of incest and when the life of the mother is at stake yet not support amending the GOP party platform to reflect that view. Bush didn’t answer the question, and Keyes pointed out how wobbly both are on the issue.

After a droningly familiar routine on taxes, and a rat-a-tat-tat on various other issues, the debate was finally brought to a merciful end. All three men claimed to be the outsider in the race. All held their ground. All hate Bill Clinton and Al Gore. “Not a lot of mothers and dads are naming their sons Bill Clinton,” Bush joked.

They all made their individual pitches repeatedly. Keyes said he should be the nominee because he “articulate[s] better than almost anybody in this country” what lies in the hearts of the American people. “Why on earth don’t we want to send our best against Al Gore and Bill Bradley?” he asked, calling McCain and Bush “halfhearted” and “unconvicted.”

Bush countered that he was the one who could “go to Washington with an agenda that’s positive and hopeful and optimistic.” McCain noted that the “Republican Party had lost its way” and only he and his message of reform could win over the independents and Democrats necessary to recapture the White House. He said he doesn’t fault the GOP establishment for selecting an establishment candidate — though these are the same people who have handed the GOP two losing presidential elections and two losing congressional elections.

During the previous GOP debate in South Carolina — at an open-bar party fund-raiser — most of the audience members seemed drunk. I mocked them at the time. Tonight, I just envy them. For my sobriety has led me into the unequivocating arms of Keyes (not really, just for the moment). And I bet his latest performance gets him more than the 5 percent he had in the polls just last weekend.

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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