Live from Los Angeles

Bush, McCain and Keyes joust about death row, public schools and abortion, but avoid jokes about David Letterman's heart.

Published March 3, 2000 5:48PM (EST)

It's a shame it has to end this way. In the
final presidential debate before the definitive March 7 primaries, the GOP
contest felt Thursday like an episode of a TV drama that has stayed on the
air a season too long. The plot lines were recycled and thin, with Alan Keyes, Sen. John McCain
and Gov. George
W. Bush
all offering regurgitated snippets of their standard stump

Oh, there were moments: Keyes attacked McCain as pro-choice and said he
would never vote for him, even if McCain was the eventual Republican nominee, while McCain reaffirmed his pro-life status. Bush sounded callow insisting that a federal court's decision to free Texas death row inmate Calvin Jerold Burdine, because his lawyer had slept through much of his trial, proved "the system worked" -- though it was the federal government, and not the execution-happy state of Texas, that freed him. In the end, Keyes declared himself the "sentimental favorite," and heck, when it's all over, in hindsight, he may well be.

But mostly, the GOP debate was about as exciting as an episode of "Dynasty"
circa 1985. And on Thursday -- unlike the night before, when Bush appeared on "Late Night with David Letterman" and McCain joshed with Jay Leno -- there were absolutely no jokes about Letterman's heart.

If Bush had been able to write the script, the entire debate would have
focused on education. It
was obvious that Bush and his advisors had decided education would be the
No. 1 March 7 issue, and he tried several times to steer the debate there.

"I thought you were going to ask about education," an eager Bush said
when the Los Angeles Times' Doyle McManus asked him a question about
trigger locks. Education
is home turf for Bush, much like foreign policy and campaign finance reform
are for McCain.

Bush also knew that education has consistently been the top issue in
California for the past couple of years, with Gov. Gray Davis riding the
issue to a 20-point victory here in 1998. But it remains to be seen whether
it will define people's presidential votes the same way.

For the most part, McCain and Bush largely agree on education policies, with
one notable difference: Bush would force public
schools that accept federal money to develop standardized tests and make sure low-performing students' achievement improves, or lose their funding. McCain and Keyes
attacked the Texas governor for advocating federal intervention in what they said should be a local issue.

"I believe it's a serious mistake to allow some bureaucrat in Washington to
decide the education standards in the state of Arizona," McCain said. "I
want those decisions made not by some Washington bureaucrat, but by
someone who knows my children's names." But Bush's tough-love approach has earned him accolades in Texas, and scores of minority and
poor students have risen steadily since he took office. In their pandering to far-right education zealots, voucher advocates and home-schoolers, McCain and Keyes made Bush briefly sound presidential.

McCain stumbled when asked what his most significant contributions to
education were during his years in Congress. He muttered something about
the military teachers program and "using the bully pulpit in favor of the
examples that are set in my state and by other reformers in the school
system in America." He failed to name any examples, however.

McCain spent a lot of time talking about wanting to talk about issues, which seems
to have become his new issue as he tries to transition out of the
defensive posture he has been forced into for much of this week. This week
has been something of a disaster for the McCain campaign, which has gotten
hung up on the senator's attacks on Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and
on calls made by his campaign criticizing Bush for going to Bob Jones
University. Then Californians blasted him for bailing out on Thursday's debate, and he jumped back in -- by satellite, on a big screen near Keyes and Bush.

But the debate suffered from a stodgy format, with none of the hand-to-hand
combat that marked the debates earlier this winter. Instead it was a
regression to the prosaic form of one question per candidate, with little
or no chance for rebuttal and no opportunity for the candidates to engage
each other directly.

So it was predictable: Keyes blaming the media's racism for his lagging
poll numbers, implying that core Republicans were entrapped by the media
and prevented from voting their conscience, and that the Republican Party was destined to
nominate a candidate who would lose to Al Gore in November; McCain
regurgitating his stock line of needing no on-the-job training to be
president, implying, of course, that Bush would; and Bush saying once again
that he is a uniter, not a divider. It made one nostalgic for Letterman the night before.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Anthony York

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abortion Education George W. Bush John Mccain