John McCain says George W. Bush has violated the candidates' mutual pledge not to go negative as they campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. The Arizona senator promised Tuesday to give the Texas governor tit for tat in his drive to win the crucial South Carolina primary.
"We used to be buddies. Now, he calls me a hypocrite and stands beside a man who said I have abandoned veterans," Mr. McCain said at a campaign stop in North Augusta.
"We'll hit back, and we'll hit harder than we have been hit," he said.
That might already have happened in the Palmetto State with a television spot featuring what has become known on the campaign trail as "The Handshake," a pledge not to go negative made during a January debate. Mr. McCain's new advertisement accuses Mr. Bush of making a negative attack and asks "Do we really want another politician in the White House America can't trust?"
He justified the attack Monday by accusing the Bush camp of resorting to push polls -- telephone surveys thatappear to be opinion polls to the uninitiated but instead are another type of negative campaigning.
Mr. McCain was accompanied to North Augusta by his wife, Cindy, and South Carolina Congressmen Lindsey Graham and Mark Sanford, when his "Straight Talk Express" rolled into town shortly after 8 a.m. There to meet him at the North Augusta Community Center was an overflow crowd of Republicans, independents and Democrats drawn to the GOP contender.
These are the voters who have helped narrow the gap between the maverick Republican and Mr. Bush, the front-runner.
According to an ABC-Washington Post poll released Monday, Mr. Bush still leads Mr. McCain in South Carolina by 48 percent to 43 percent, but the margin for error is 4.5 percentage points, making the race a dead heat.
Nationally, a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll taken Feb. 1 showed Mr. Bush at 56 percent to Mr. McCain's 34 percent. This represents a sizable gain in standings over a poll taken Jan. 24, just after the Iowa caucuses, showing Mr. Bush with a 56 percent to 16 percent lead over Mr. McCain.
The senator opened his campaign in North Augusta with a direct pitch to veterans, about one-third of his audience, whom he asked to stand and be recognized.
"About 30,000 World War II veterans are dying each year without the health care benefits promised them. I promise you, I'll change that," he said. "And when I'm elected president, we'll have no food-stamp Army. The all-volunteer force hasn't failed us. We have failed the all-volunteer force."
He added that about 12,000 enlisted men and women have gone on food stamps to feed their families.
Mr. McCain sent a message veterans wanted to hear, said retired Army Col. Maury Rice, who sat on the dais among an array of local McCain supporters.
"He represents one of the very few leaders in Washington today who have had military experience and I think he will give a fair shake to military retirees," Mr. Rice said.
Mr. McCain stuck to his agenda as a reform candidate, noting the way to reform health care, education and the tax code is "to get the big money from the special interest out of Washington."
Laying most of the blame for campaign finance excesses on the Democrats -- "Clinton treated the Lincoln bedroom like it was Motel 6 and he was the bellhop" -- Mr. McCain admitted that members of both parties resist campaign reform. He said the lack of it was holding up change in other areas.
"Republicans have just taken $7 million from tobacco corporations," he said. "Do you think that's a charitable contribution?"
He contended that reforms such as an HMO patients' bill of rights are languishing in Congress because Democrats get money from trial lawyers and Republicans get money from the health care industry.
Name: John McCain
Born: 1936, Panama Canal Zone
Education: U.S. Naval Academy, 1958
Family: First wife: Carol Shepp, two sons; Second wife: Cindy Hensley, four children
Career: Retired U.S. Navy, 1981 with rank of captain; U.S. Senate, 1986-present
Quote: "I'm going to break that iron triangle of money, lobbyists, and legislation in Washington."
Reach Pat Willis at (803) 279-6895.