Let the slugfest begin

GOP rivals race to accuse one another of the sin of "going negative."

Published October 26, 1999 11:12AM (EDT)

As the race for the GOP presidential nomination began to tighten, ever so slightly, and the George W. Bush campaign began spending some of its massive war chest on new television ads, the campaign, predictably, got a little bit uglier.

All day Tuesday fax machines were humming with charges and counter-charges that this or that Republican candidate had committed the sin of "going negative."

One of Bush's new ads claims that he "reduced the growth of state government spending to the lowest in 40 years." But Steve Forbes' campaign manager, Ken Blackwell, called on him to "either fix his ad ... or take it off the air. The truth is, Gov. Bush has not been a successful leader in restraining spending. The ad claims that Bush's spending record is somehow exemplary. Actually, it is more of a Clintonian record than conservative. In fact, George Bush makes Bill Clinton look like a fiscal conservative."

Bush's team responded quickly to the barb. "This misleading attack says more about Steve Forbes than it does Gov. Bush," said campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker in a statement that was blast-faxed to political reporters. "Republican voters will reject this effort to mislead voters and distort the facts just as they did when Forbes relied on the same negative tactics in 1996."

The hit on Bush comes amid a new series of stories that show the Republican race beginning to tighten somewhat. Bush still enjoys double-digit leads over his GOP rivals. But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has enjoyed a surge of momentum in recent weeks, some of it coming at the expense of the front-runner.

Bush has been bracing for the escalation for weeks. Last week in Seattle, Bush launched a preemptive strike against Forbes in anticipation of the campaign turning nasty.

Meanwhile, Bush himself was fending off charges from McCain that the Texas governor organized a smear campaign against him. McCain accused Bush of orchestrating a New York Times article on Monday that portrayed the senator as a hothead whose personal feud with Arizona Gov. Jane Hull led to her endorsement of Bush -- even though McCain's trouble with Hull and other Arizona Republicans had been previously reported.

"Apparently the memo has gone out from the Bush campaign to start attacking John McCain, something that I'd hoped wouldn't happen," McCain told reporters in San Francisco Monday. "Even though sometimes it's not so pleasant, it's really something that should be a little encouraging, because we are closing in on him, and that clearly has him unhappy." Recent polls show McCain has narrowed Bush's lead in New Hampshire to 12 points.

Bush California spokeswoman Margita Thompson dismissed McCain's charges. "As he has always done, Gov. Bush is running a positive, issue-oriented campaign based on his message of improving schools, strengthening our national defense and cutting taxes. As he has said before, he likes Sen. McCain as a person and will treat him with respect."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.