Finally, a little mud

Before Congress even starts the day, a card-carrying member of the right-wing fringe labels McCain a "Manchurian Candidate."

Published March 20, 2001 8:38PM (EST)

Barely one day into the debate over the campaign finance reform bill introduced by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and the mudslinging has already begun. Barely.

An e-mail sent out to "many, many" citizens and media organizations on Tuesday morning by Larry Farrell, a board member of Gun Owners of New Jersey, the state affiliate of national gun rights organization Gun Owners of America, accuses McCain, who was a POW in Vietnam for five-and-a-half years, of having "collaborated with the enemy." The e-mail calls McCain "the Manchurian Candidate come to life," a reference to the 1962 film in which a brainwashed Korean War POW returns to the United States and is thrust into the middle of a presidential campaign.

"McCain's secure enough not to worry about whatever slime crawls out to attack him during this debate," said McCain's Senate chief of staff, Mark Salter. "The people who know or were witnesses to his service know how well he served his country, and that's the only opinion that matters to him."

Farrell said that attacks against McCain's character and war record were justified, since McCain's actions on campaign finance reform, as well as his support for closing the gun show loophole, indicate that "McCain wants to destroy the First and Second Amendments."

"He has taken an oath more than once to support and defend the Constitution from enemies both domestic and abroad," Farrell said. "It is our opinion that he is acting in a manner similar to the actions of the character in the movie because the man is violating the oath of office."

Members of the McCain-Feingold brigade had anticipated all sorts of attacks against their bill, which would ban the unregulated, unlimited political party cash known as "soft money," among other campaign reform measures. Some groups, of course, like the American Civil Liberties Union, oppose the measure on philosophical grounds, as a limit on free speech. For others, it's a more personal matter; since interest groups and individuals wield power through the dissemination of this money, reformers say, it's just common sense that the interests would want to protect the tools through which they exert influence.

But until this morning, in this debate, opponents kept their disagreements relatively aboveboard. The Gun Owners of New Jersey e-mail -- however minor an effort -- is still the first iota of slime, wherein a player in this debate is being attacked personally.

Asked how he justified referring to McCain by the name of a brainwashed, Communist movie character, Farrell referred a reporter to a fringe veterans group Web site whose statements have been refuted elsewhere. Farrell said that his charge that McCain had "collaborated with the enemy" stemmed from the fact that, after being tortured in the POW camp, McCain signed a confession to war crimes.

A number of political observers have wondered how far the attacks against McCain would go during this debate. Not only is the very means by which lobbyists, unions and corporations exert influence in politics being threatened by McCain-Feingold's proposed ban on "soft money" -- not to mention a constitutionally questionable ban on third-party "issue" ads around election time -- but the odd dynamic between McCain and President Bush is at play as well.

McCain's power and influence in the Senate will surely increase if his campaign finance reform bill passes; they will surely decrease if it does not. Bush wants the latter to happen. He wants McCain to be marginalized, to the point that his White House instructed his Senate liaison, Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to make an end run around McCain and try to work with Democratic senators on an HMO patients bill of rights, even though it's McCain's bill. And, as we all recall from the South Carolina primary, Bush is capable of allowing -- if not ordering -- any manner of personal attack against an opponent by his allies.

Is Bush willing to play the game again? It's early in the game yet.

By Jake Tapper

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

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