DNC Invokes McCain in Offensive

Democrats Say 2000 Bush Attacks on McCain Show ‘Negativity’

Posted September 15, 2003 at 6:43pm

Attempting to reignite the bitter 2000 GOP presidential primary, the Democratic National Committee has launched a new offensive against Republican “negativity” by highlighting the withering attacks against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in South Carolina.

Hoping to drive another wedge between McCain and those close to President Bush, DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe has turned to the treatment of McCain in South Carolina to put the GOP on the defensive about its campaign tactics. And the DNC published a report Monday on its Web site called “Political Hate Speech: The GOP Record of Negative Attacks,” outlining the alleged dirty tricks against McCain as well as Democrats such as former Sen. Max Cleland (Ga.) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.).

“A look at Bush’s own record on negativity shows that he embraces the Republican Party’s long tradition of negative political attacks and vicious campaign tactics. It is this tradition they are attempting to mask when GOP Chairman Ed Gillespie hurls accusations of ‘political hate speech’ at Democrats who challenge President Bush for his failed policies,” the report began.

The issue started as a fight between McAuliffe and Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sept. 7, when the chairmen jousted over which party was responsible for the most negative campaigning. After McAuliffe accused the Bush campaign of attacking the Arizona Senator’s family, his sanity and his patriotism, Gillespie denied the campaign did anything like that and dared McAuliffe to prove those accusations.

The DNC took the bait and now wants to use the issue as a club against Bush in general and, more particularly, to blunt Gillespie’s continuing assertions that the Democratic presidential candidates are the most negative White House aspirants in political history.

Pointing to the South Carolina presidential primary in 2000 has become a favorite punchline of McAuliffe’s, something he has used to get his partisan crowd fired up.

As he put it to the Association of State Democratic Chairs in St. Paul, Minn., in late June: “We’ve already seen what they’re capable of. I take you back three years ago, and Senator McCain was flying high after winning his upstart victory in the New Hampshire presidential primary. … McCain may have survived the prison camps of Hanoi, but he didn’t count on the crowd he was up against [in South Carolina]. Instead of honoring his service and taking pride in his astounding story of fortitude and survival, President Bush’s allies went to work questioning John McCain’s sanity, and attacking his wife and children.”

In addition to blunting Gillespie’s own attacks, some Democrats hope the issue prompts another round of sparring between McCain and his supporters and Bush’s allies, a rivalry that seems to have dulled a bit in the last few months.

McCain was not available for comment Monday, and his staff declined to comment on the situation.

In the first 12 to 18 months of the Bush administration, McCain was at the center of many political and legislative battles with the White House, most prominently over his long-treasured issue of campaign finance laws. But the Senator also accused Bush’s advisers of shutting McCain’s former aides out of potential jobs in other campaigns, and at one point in 2001 McCain’s supporters openly talked about whether he would bolt the Republican Party in the style of his political hero, Teddy Roosevelt.

RNC spokeswoman Christine Iverson dismissed the DNC attacks as “wild accusations” without any proof or substance, saying the DNC report showed no instances where Bush campaign officials did any of the things McAuliffe said they did. “Our own opposition researchers couldn’t have done a better job of proving Terry McAuliffe false,” she said, adding that there is no McCain-Bush split in the party.

“The Republican Party is more united than it’s ever been, and the Democratic Party is in complete and total disarray,” Iverson said. “Their presidential candidates attack the president daily, and when they’re not attacking the president, they attack each other.”

Iverson said the DNC report showed instances in which people not on the Bush campaign said things that McAuliffe was accusing Bush of, such as a conservative Christian magazine article written by Bob Jones IV that questioned McCain’s ability to be a good husband.

McCain’s former political director, John Weaver, who left the Republican Party in 2002 and became a Democrat, said the DNC is right in its effort of trying to not allow “Gillespie and the crowd over there to rewrite history.”

Weaver pointed to the moment in South Carolina when, at a Bush campaign rally, a speaker accused McCain of turning his back on veterans when he became a Senator, an attack that Bush as a candidate declined to endorse or reject.

Accusing the Bush campaign of “taking the lowest road possible,” Weaver added, “Bush refused to stop what was going on.”

Weaver said the issue wasn’t about driving a new wedge between Republicans but about defending Democrats from being called un- patriotic for questioning Bush’s policies. “They’re doing what’s appropriate in a Democratic process,” he said.

DNC spokeswoman Debra DeShong said Democrats will continue to point out the attacks on McCain, as well as those on Cleland — whose image appeared in a commercial with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein last year — and Daschle — who has been accused of being a traitor for questioning Bush’s foreign policy.

“This is one of the most vicious, negative groups to ever come to power,” DeShong said. “If [the McCain attacks] is what they did to get power, imagine what they’ll do to keep it.”