U.S. Sens. Paul Coverdell and Phil Gramm hammered colleague John McCain on Monday as a supporter of big taxes and big government as they stumped for Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
It is yet another sign of the increasingly nasty race for the Republican presidential nomination in the key primary state of South Carolina.
The Bush backers met with the editorial board of The Augusta Chronicle on Monday; Mr. McCain, of Arizona, will press his case to a North Augusta crowd at 8 a.m. today.
Taking on Mr. McCain's promise for honesty symbolized by his "Straight Talk Express" bus caravan, Mr. Coverdell said Mr. McCain lied when he said he had never supported a tax increase in his 17 years in Congress.
"By any measurement, that's not true, that's not straight talk," Mr. Coverdell said, pointing out a proposed $516 billion tax on tobacco that Mr. McCain sponsored. "He was the author of and promoter of the second-largest tax increase -- and voted for it -- in American history."
That's not the case, argued McCain spokesman Dan McLagan.
"That was a measure to force the tobacco companies to pay for some fraction of the damage they did to society by lying to Congress, lying to the American people and addicting our kids to cigarettes, to nicotine," Mr. McLagan said.
Mr. Coverdell also took issue with Mr. McCain's vote against a disaster relief bill that would have provided aid to Georgia.
But that bill became "riddled with pork" after it was filled with other projects and added to the budget, where it was "balanced on the backs of the men and women in the military," according to a McCain statement.
Mr. Gramm also took issue with a McCain vote against an amendment in his own campaign finance reform bill that would have required a union member's permission to use dues for political purposes.
The McCain bill "arms unions and disarms the Republican Party," Mr. Gramm said. But Mr. McCain is for what is termed paycheck protection and opposed the amendment only to keep it from poisoning broader-based support for the campaign finance measure, McCain spokeswoman Nancy Ives said.
"The senators know that, they know better; Gov. Bush knows that, he knows better," Mr. McLagan added.
Mr. Gramm also criticized Mr. McCain's five-year, $237 billion tax reform plan for not providing as much of a tax cut as Mr. Bush's $483 billion, five-year package.
While conceding that both plans talk about eliminating the marriage penalty and doubling child tax credits, "(Mr. McCain) doesn't provide the tax cut that actually solves the problem," Mr. Gramm said.
"You've got the label but not the can of soup," Mr. Coverdell said.
Mr. McCain's plan devotes more to paying down the debt and preserving Social Security, Mr. McLagan said.
"It's conservative to pay down the debt; it's conservative to keep Social Security solvent for our kids and grandkids because if we don't it's going to come back on their heads as a massive tax down the road," Mr. McLagan said.
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213.