Crunch time on the Straight Talk Express

Running dead even in the South Carolina polls, McCain tries to stay positive as Bush goes into attack mode.

Published February 18, 2000 4:00PM (EST)

Sen. John McCain is in the midst of a radio interview, but the host just broke to a commercial. So McCain looks down and listens intently as his bus, the Straight Talk Express, barrels through the South Carolina sprawl.

Then he looks up.

"I just heard two negative attack ads during the break," he says.

The two ads -- a ludicrous one by George W. Bush-backing former Gov. Carroll Campbell alleging that Democrats are conspiring to prop up McCain to improve Vice President Al Gore's chances in November, and an utterly mendacious one by pro-life forces -- are part of the nonstop barrage of negativity being hurled his way by the Bush campaign. Tracking polls of South Carolina's likely GOP primary voters have the race too close to call, so Bush and his cronies have been heaving (in the most vomitous sense of the word) everything they can McCain's way.

Some in the McCain camp are oddly encouraged by Bush's nastiness. It indicates that they're still threatened, they think. Bush just started running an attack ad against McCain in the senator's home state of Arizona, which holds its primary on Tuesday. McCain is expected to win his home state handily, so the decision seems odd, ill-conceived, "based on emotion," according to a McCain strategist.

"Seems to me that the governor doesn't really care much for losing," McCain says at one point, smiling.

McCain media man Mike Murphy hands McCain his cell phone. He's doing radio interviews all over the country. While on hold and in between calls, he takes our questions.

McCain is asked about a mailing from People for the American Way, a liberal Washington group founded by Norman Lear that accuses McCain's South Carolina strategist, Richard Quinn, of publishing all sorts of nefarious, race-baiting Confederacy rhetoric in the magazine he edits, the Southern Partisan.

McCain dodges the question with some talk one might observe is not quite straight, noting that Quinn has worked for both Ronald Reagan and Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and that he "almost never agree[s] with" Lear's group.

Speaking of straight, I say, what does he think about Bush's ploy during Tuesday night's CNN debate to tie him to the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP group?

McCain, again stretching the bounds of credibility somewhat, says he doesn't think Bush was trying to do that. "I would hope not," McCain says, trying with all his might to stay positive. "I don't think that would be well received in other parts of the country. And we've got to run a national campaign." He returns to the radio program.

Gary Bauer pokes his head in the back room where we're all sitting. The Christian activist endorsed McCain on Wednesday, deeming the Arizona senator's and Bush's positions on social issues like abortion essentially the same, but apparently deciding that McCain simply had the best chance of beating likely Democratic nominee Gore.

"I think I finally got my mom on board," Bauer jokes. Christian conservatives eye McCain warily. Bauer acknowledges that McCain's not in perfect alignment with his priorities, but he is inspired by McCain's war heroics and dismayed by the big money behind Bush. During the GOP debates, back when there were seven Republicans in the race, McCain and Bauer were the only ones who supported campaign finance reform and the HMO patients' bill of rights legislation.

I ask Bauer why so many pro-life groups are coming at McCain so hard, calling the pro-lifer a baby killer.

"It's hard to determine what explains the vitriol," Bauer says. "Those ads are a gross exaggeration of the differences -- which are relatively nuanced -- between" Bush's and McCain's stated positions. "It's unbecoming of a movement marked by its dedication to save human life." An aide calls him back to the front of the vehicle, where he returns to his mission: talking up McCain on Christian radio.

McCain's back with us. Do the push polls and slanderous accusations against him by Bush's third-party surrogates bother him?

"It's depressing," he acknowledges. I point out that Bush could stop them if he wanted. "He could stop them," McCain agrees. "But I can't do anything but count on the good judgment of the people of South Carolina."

Sen. Bill Bradley's prospects sank when he refused to stand up to Gore's assault, another reporter points out. Doesn't McCain fear the same result?

"Obviously, it defies conventional political wisdom," McCain says. "But we don't have a choice."

You mean you don't have a choice tactically or you don't have a choice personally? he is asked.

"Personally," he replies.

Is his no-negativity pledge just for the primaries, or will it count for the general election as well?

"Oh, I promise you, it applies only to the primaries," McCain says. Referring to a memo Gore's mom once wrote to her son, McCain says, "I know Vice President 'Smile, Relax, Attack.'"

Does he dislike Gore personally?

"I didn't like what he did to Bradley," he says. "I thought it was uncalled for. Especially to say that he [Bradley] was trying to hurt minorities" with his health care plan.

Another reporter repeats former Sen. Alan Simpson's allegation that Gore sold his vote on the Persian Gulf War to whichever side promised him the most prime-time TV time for his speech.

"I was standing right there when he said that," McCain says. "I was standing with Bob Dole and a bunch of other senators when he said he'd vote for the Persian Gulf War, 'if you let me give my speech in prime time.'"

I ask McCain about a bizarre naval ceremony that occurs when sailors cross the equator for the first time. He's familiar with it. The newbies are called "polywogs," McCain says, and after "King Neptune" -- the sailor who crossed the equator longest ago -- allows it and after an odd hazing ritual, the polywogs become shellbacks. "We inherited that tradition from the British," McCain says. He did it as a midshipman on the way to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

What's this I hear that quite a few of the sailors dress in drag?

McCain says that some of them dress as mermaids and such. "Long time at sea," he jokes.

Earlier in the day, I heard some former Navy pilots grousing that McCain didn't stand up for his men after the Tailhook scandal, in which a number of female naval officers were sexually assaulted.

"I think I stood by my men," McCain says. "But I also think I stood by my women. That's just not acceptable conduct."

In a side conversation, it comes out that Murphy speaks Russian.

"I can just see the push polls now," jokes Bauer, who's back with us: "'Would you feel the same way about Sen. McCain if you knew one of his aides spoke Russian?'"

Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., comes on back. He's just been on the phone and has heard news that he thinks bodes well for high voter turnout on Saturday, which should mean good news for McCain. Part of Bush's relentlessly negative attacks on McCain are grounded in the theory that it will depress the turnout of the self-disenfranchised voters who McCain attracts in droves.

A few areas of the state allow early voting, Graham says, and he's heard that the turnout in Richland County is about 3,100 and the turnout in Lexington County is about 1,200 -- twice as many as turned out in the 1996 primary. This is just anecdotal, he says. But McCain staffers are hungry for good news. Later that night, a TV reporter shares the latest NBC News poll: Bush, 44 percent; McCain, 38 percent; Alan Keyes, 5 percent, with a whopping 13 percent still undecided. The negative attacks will continue. Bush wants those 13 percent to stay home.

By Jake Tapper

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

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George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.