Bush puts best face on spending

By Anne E. Kornblut, Globe Staff, and Curtis Wilkie, Globe Correspondent, 2/17/2000

ILTON HEAD, S.C. - Conceding that his campaign churned through more than $50 million before Jan. 31, Governor George W. Bush struggled yesterday to defend his rapid spending rate and his aides conceded that campaign costs have spiraled since his defeat in New Hampshire.

News of Bush's money situation came as his chief rival for the Republican nomination, Senator John S. McCain of Arizona, scored something of a breakthrough on the Christian conservative front with the endorsement of Gary Bauer, an antiabortion activist who abandoned his presidential campaign two weeks ago. Bauer may be able to help McCain fend off questions about the depth of his devotion to the antiabortion cause.

McCain also won support from California's highest-ranking Republican officeholder, Secretary of State Bill Jones, who had supported Bush.

After McCain's victory in New Hampshire, Bush has maintained an aggressive 14-state television advertising schedule. He has spent more than $3 million in South Carolina alone, where a pivotal primary will be held Saturday. The expenditures have left Bush with less than $20 million to fight the rest of the Republican primary race. The condition of Bush's finances is especially troubling to Republican supporters who saw his early fund-raising boom as his greatest strength.

In remarks to reporters in Hilton Head, Bush maintained his equanimity about the progress of his campaign.

''We've got a plan in place that's going to allow me to stay in this race for the long run,'' Bush said. ''We have been fighting in every primary state, we are on plan, and I think I've got a good chance of winning.''

Turning the fund-raising tables on McCain, Bush also questioned whether the senator had surpassed spending limits in South Carolina by spending $2.8 million in ads. McCain denied doing so, under complex campaign finance laws. The limits do not apply to Bush, who is not accepting federal matching funds.

The two candidates, who are believed to be locked in a close race here, campaigned across the state all day.

Bauer appeared at McCain's side at a rally at Furman University in Greenville. Although Bauer acknowledged policy differences with McCain over trade issues with China and on gays in the military, he described the senator as the candidate who represents ''the best shot we have to end the era of Bill and Hillary and Al Gore.''

At a subsequent press conference, McCain said Bauer's presence in his campaign would ''provide a line of communication with parts of the party where lines were not as strong as I would have liked for them to have been.''

Bauer is the first prominent member of the Christian conservative movment to endorse McCain. Although the Arizona senator has insisted throughout the campaign that he is a ''pro-life'' candidate, both he and Bush have been dogged by activists because of their support of exemptions for abortions in cases of rape or incest or when the life of the woman is in danger.

In a series of GOP debates, Bauer repeatedly demanded that Bush pledge to name a ''pro-life'' running mate. Bush refused. Bauer said yesterday that he realized McCain opposed ''a litmus test, too.''

Bush, meanwhile, has been the unquestioned king of campaign fund-raising, drawing in more money for this election than any candidate in history. Before New Hampshire, many observers believed his giant funding effort, combined with his broad-based party support, would make Bush all but invincible in the race.

McCain's Feb. 1 victory punctured that belief. But the revelations about Bush's Jan. 31 filing with the Federal Election Commission, first reported in The New York Times, raised a possibility that Bush might spend much of his war chest before reaching the general election campaign.

Bush aides, however, said they were simply following a longstanding spending plan. The governor's communications director, Karen Hughes, said the $50 million or so spent before Jan. 31 included prepayments for advertising in the months to come. She also said Bush had arranged a contingency-financing plan in case he lost the New Hampshire race, which the campaign is adhering to now.

Even with his campaign coffers down to about $20 million, Bush still has far greater resources than all his opponents combined. McCain had $10 million in cash as of Jan. 31, after spending some $26 million in the race, according to senior aide Rick Davis.