Attack gets personal

Bush slams McCain for being insensitive to a disease -- one battled by McCain's sister.

Published March 3, 2000 4:46PM (EST)

When George W. Bush launched a radio ad accusing John McCain of being indifferent to funding for breast cancer research, he ended up deeply offending his opponent, whose own sister is a breast cancer survivor currently in remission.

McCain himself refused to answer questions about the condition of his sister, Sandy McCain Morgan. But reached by phone, Morgan said, "All I can say is that I'm very grateful for my brother's support for breast cancer research, and I'm very grateful to Johns Hopkins hospital," where her illness was treated.

"Two years ago I was diagnosed and now I'm doing just fine," Morgan said, and refused further comment.

Salon was told of Morgan's condition by a McCain family friend angry about the ad, believing it an example of Bush's ruthless campaign style.

McCain, meanwhile, refused to comment on his older sister's condition because, a McCain aide said, "He's not Al Gore." In the past, most notably during the 1996 Democratic convention, Vice President Gore cited his sister's battle with lung cancer as reason for his opposition to the tobacco industry, and his son's car accident as a wake-up call to the need to preserve the environment. In the process, Gore received criticism for opportunistically using family tragedy to score political points.

Earlier, even before Salon reported McCain's sister's condition, political observers had already taken offense at the Texas governor's latest attack ad for reasons having more to do with accuracy than sensitivity. "That really is going too far," said commentator and frequent McCain critic Robert Novak about the Bush ad on CNN's "Crossfire" Thursday night.

The radio ad, which began running in New York on Wednesday -- in what was described by a Bush spokesman as a "moderate-to-large media buy" -- features Geri Barish, a breast cancer survivor. Barish cites McCain's vote against funding for two programs, the North Shore Long Island Jewish breast cancer program and New York University's women's cancer program, as the reason why he won't get her vote on Tuesday's primary. "America deserves better," she says in the ad.

"We deserve a candidate with a record on women's issues we can trust," she says at the conclusion of the ad.

Asked about the breast cancer radio ad Thursday in California, McCain said, "Everybody knows that I'm not against breast cancer research. But I'm adamantly opposed to the use of funds that are supposed to go to the military -- to the men and women on food stamps -- and use it for breast cancer research, when that should come out of Health and Human Services" money, he said.

McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said that McCain's opposition to the hundreds of funding programs listed on his Web site -- from which the Bush campaign gleaned its charges -- was because the bill in question diverted "hundreds of millions of dollars in research grants to specific research centers. It may very well have been that these research goals could have been more efficiently met at research facilities in the district of a less powerful member of Congress" than those responsible for slipping the funding into the appropriations bill, Davis said.

Additionally, Davis noted, in 1997, McCain backed legislation to double the budget for funding to the National Institutes of Health, which funds and oversees breast cancer research programs all over the country.

"It's not the kind of campaign that I would run," McCain added about the ad. "I would not accuse Gov. Bush of being against any kind of humanitarian effort, whether breast cancer research, or Parkinson's, or any other." Saying polls continued to show him beating Bush in three polls in New York state, where the radio ads are running, McCain said, "Maybe people aren't as gullible as Gov. Bush thinks."

While McCain refused to discuss his sister's struggle, he did make a particular point to voice, during one campaign stop in East Los Angeles, his hope for "Gov. Bush to get out of the gutter."

Meanwhile, at an event Thursday at Clear View Charter School in Chula Vista, Calif., Bush said that "Sen. McCain is running an angry campaign," without elaborating why that might be.

It is just the latest example of one of the campaigns accusing the other of going too far in its attacks. During the South Carolina primary race, third parties handed out literature about McCain's wife Cindy's past struggle with drug dependency, and one anti-McCain phone call managed to cast a negative light on the McCains' adoption of Bridget, a Bangladeshi orphan. An e-mail from a Bob Jones University professor alleged that McCain had fathered illegitimate children. Bush has denied coordinating with any third-party groups on the attacks.

Bush, meanwhile, claimed that in criticizing him for an appearance at Bob Jones, which preaches anti-Catholic rhetoric and bans interracial dating, McCain made him appear to be "an anti-Catholic bigot," as he put it during Thursday night's debate.

Told Thursday evening of McCain's sister's condition, Bush campaign spokesman Ari Fleischer said the campaign would have no immediate comment. Bush is scheduled to spend Friday discussing breast cancer research at Stony Brook Health Sciences Center in New York.

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.