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POLITICS: Straight talk veers left

National | Embarrassed McCain backers say their man went too far in his Falwell-Robertson criticism

Issue: "1st-grade murder," March 11, 2000

in Washington - McCain in the lions' den" one newspaper headline announced breathlessly following the Arizona senator's visit to Virginia Beach. The biblical allusion, however, was more than a little strained: This would-be Daniel arrived with a caravan of advisers, aides, and journalists to help him throw rocks at the beasts. As in the biblical story, the lions kept their mouths shut. Mr. McCain, on the other hand, was eager to run his. "Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton, on the left, or Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell on the right," he declared. "The union bosses who have subordinated the interests of working families to their own ambitions, to their desire to preserve their own political power at all costs, are mirror images of Pat Robertson," he said, adding that he and Mr. Falwell are "people who have turned good causes into businesses." Here, just a few miles from Mr. Robertson's headquarters, Mr. McCain had come to beard the lions of the religious right. While proclaiming himself a "proud Reagan conservative," he proceeded to tear apart the very coalition that had propelled Mr. Reagan to victory. The next day, aboard his campaign bus, he went even further, labeling Mr. Robertson and Mr. Falwell "the forces of evil"-something he would later call "an attempt at humor." The press, predictably enough, hailed the attack as risky and brave, but the downside for Mr. McCain was actually quite small. His appeal in the GOP primary contest with George W. Bush is almost solely to moderate and liberal Republicans and Democrat crossover voters. So flogging two unpopular religious-right targets was a sure way to further enhance his credentials as a moderate and a maverick. Cultural conservative William Bennett, who has praised Mr. McCain as more electable than Mr. Bush, was stunned by the gambit. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Bennett decried Mr. McCain's "highly intemperate and wildly misdirected" remarks and said that they have provided a "glimpse into another, more troubling, side of the candidate." Wrote Mr. Bennett: "The blast against Messrs. Robertson and Falwell is the worst manifestation of an emerging pattern with Mr. McCain. He often portrays those with whom he disagrees as not just wrong but wicked. Those who oppose his campaign-finance reforms are 'corrupt'; the leaders of the pro-life movement are 'turning a cause into a business'; and now, two visible Christian conservative leaders are 'evil.' He is attempting, quite literally in the most recent case, to demonize his opponents. That has no place in American political discourse." The pattern prompted one leading McCain supporter to pack his bags. Terry Haskins, speaker pro tem of the South Carolina House of Representatives, announced on Feb. 28 that he was stepping down as the South Carolina co-chair of the McCain campaign. He worried that the McCain campaign had "created an environment which threatens the freedom for any individual or group in America to hold unpopular religious beliefs." Gary Bauer, who endorsed Mr. McCain in South Carolina and campaigned across the state with Mr. Haskins, was more sanguine-at least initially. He stood on the platform in Virginia Beach while the candidate ripped the two religious-right figures. En route to the speech, he saw an advance copy of Mr. McCain's remarks and suggested some changes he might want to make. To the press, the finished product was a "stinging rebuke to the religious right." But Mr. Bauer professed to see it otherwise. "If this were an attack on Christian conservative voters, I wouldn't be here," he told reporters shortly after the speech. Many of Mr. Bauer's own supporters were shocked. Janet Parshall, his successor at the Family Research Council, said, "FRC was inundated with people who were seriously concerned about Gary's endorsement. I think it left a lot of people confused.... As [Mr. McCain] continues to mete out this bigoted speech, people wonder, 'Who is this John McCain and how on earth can Gary Bauer support him?'" At the end of the day, Mr. Bauer's endorsement seemed to do almost nothing to help his man among Christian voters. Shortly after 80 percent of Virginia's socially conservative voters rejected his candidate, Mr. Bauer issued yet another statement: This time he called on Sen. McCain to apologize to Mr. Robertson and Mr. Falwell. "As a Reagan Republican and a man of faith who has endorsed Sen. John McCain's candidacy for president of the United States, I must in the strongest possible terms repudiate Sen. McCain's unwarranted, ill-advised and divisive attacks on certain religious leaders," the press release read. It was a bizarre ending to a vicious week of campaigning. The lions had kept their mouths shut, but John McCain-and his allies-still got bloodied.

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