Key issues are little examined

By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 2/16/2000

OLUMBIA, S.C. - ''May I make a substantive remark here?''

For much of last night's testy GOP debate, that remark by former ambassador and longshot presidential candidate Alan Keyes seemed very much on the mark.

For while last night's debate was replete with passion, anger and indignation, much more of that fervor was focused on how the GOP campaign has been waged than on what it should be about. For 90 minutes, Senator John McCain and Texas Governor George W. Bush, with Keyes in a secondary but important role, managed to say little about issues such as health care and veterans benefits, two matters at the top of the South Carolina agenda.

Still, there were several notable exchanges that could affect the outcome of Saturday's vote. McCain on several occasions sought to cast himself as slightly more moderate than Bush, hoping to appeal to Democrats and independents who are likely to determine the victor in this state where any registered voter may participate in the GOP contest.

McCain, for example, criticized Bush for supporting the GOP plank against abortion rights even though it doesn't include exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. McCain also hammered Bush for proposing a huge tax cut that McCain says disproportionately benefits the rich and does not put as much money as his plan into Social Security and paying off the national debt.

Bush, meanwhile, stressed a campaign theme that he clearly hopes will prove decisive. He said he should be elected because Congress will listen to him, and not to a maverick like McCain, who is unpopular with many of his congressional colleagues.

But later in the debate, when McCain said that Bush's tax cut gave away too much money to the rich, Bush seemed to contradict himself, saying of the institution he hoped to lead: ''I don't trust Congress.''

While Bush returned time and again to his traits as a leader, McCain also underscored the theme of character, bringing up his years as a Vietnam prisoner of war. For McCain, the talk about issues was important, but it is the respect he earns for his personal sacrifice that is widely viewed as the key to whether he can win Saturday.

Still, what was surprising, and perhaps bewildering to viewers, was the extensive talk about attack ads and tactics rather than issues. It was a heated conversation on just the topic that many voters say turns them off about politics.

The most heated moment of the night captured that. McCain expressed disgust at the way Bush stood with a ''fringe'' veteran who said that McCain did not do enough for veterans.

''I don't know if you can understand this, George, but that really hurt. That really hurt,'' McCain said, reminding viewers about his POW experience and Bush's attack.

Bush rejoined that the man was not speaking for him, and went on to point out that McCain's political surrogates had said things that McCain doesn't agree with.

After all this shouting was over, one thing remained unexplored: What exactly do McCain and Bush plan to do to help veterans? The question was hardly on the table.

The third man in the debate, Keyes, is low in the polls here, but he served as a combination of critic and referee, frequently lambasting McCain and Bush for not being conservative enough, and berating them for not talking enough about the issues.

Finally, toward the end, the candidates acted like a family trying to make up after a fight. Bush, given a golden opportunity by CNN moderator Larry King to say whether McCain is a liberal, responded that the Arizona senator is a conservative and ''a good man.'' But minutes later, Bush complained that McCain had called him untrustworthy. It was revealing that both McCain and Bush came prepared with props - negative campaign leaflets each said had been dropped by opposing campaigns.

There is a reason for this. In politics, there are often intricate strategies about when to go negative and when to stop. That is especially important in South Carolina, where many people are independents, in part out of distaste for politics as usual. So last night's brawl over attack ads may well turn off some and suppress turnout. A lower turnout is likely to benefit Bush; a higher one probably would help McCain.

Still, the candidates apparently believed that they could benefit by attacking each other. For McCain, complaining about the ads was a way to attack Bush without violating his vow to drop attack ads. For Bush, linking McCain to the attack ads was a way to paint the Arizona senator as something other than a reformer.

The format of the debate may have helped Bush. In New Hampshire, he was uncomfortable in formal, standup clashes. Last night, he was in his preferred setting, sitting around a table with McCain, Keyes, and King. Moreover, several candidates who ran to Bush's right and often criticized him, including Steve Forbes and Gary Bauer, have dropped out of the race.

Amid the hard words, a significant new tack in the campaign emerged. Bush said that he could tell Congress to ''follow me,'' suggesting that the maverick McCain, whose policy positions have offended congressional colleagues and party leaders, could not do so. But McCain responded that he has passed 234 pieces of legislation and that the Republican Party needs to reshape its message with him at the helm.

McCain has spread a populist message designed to appeal to moderates and liberals, saying that Bush's tax cut plan gives too much away to the rich, a theme seldom heard in a GOP primary unless independents and Democrats played such a potentially large role.

For McCain, the plan was to present himself as the face of a Republican Party that can be reborn as a reform-minded entity that attracts voters of all political stripes. That, McCain said, will put him in a better position to capture the general election, when the need to attract Democrats and independents is the key to victory.

For Bush, the goal is a bit trickier. When he began his campaign, he ran with an assumption that he would be the GOP nominee and that he needed to cast himself as a moderate-sounding ''compassionate conservative'' in order to win in the fall. But as McCain has run strongly against him, Bush has moved gradually to the right during the primary season, casting himself as the more vigorous opponent of abortion and the proponent of the biggest tax cuts.

Such moves by Bush have helped among the GOP faithful, but they could backfire in South Carolina if a large number of Democrats and independents turn out to vote.

Moreover, McCain is seeking to convince Republican Party leaders, many of whom are working hard to make Bush the nominee, that he would be a stronger candidate in the general election because he has more appeal among Democrats and independents.

To be sure, there were numerous efforts last night by Bush and McCain to show that they are in sync with the conservative base of the Republican Party. Both men have said it is up to the state to decide whether the Confederate flag should continue to be flown over the state Capitol.

Indeed, with slight variations, Bush and McCain agree on many policies. But there is a huge gulf between them on campaign finance and tax cuts.

Bush's campaign finance plan would ban corporate ''soft money'' but continue to allow individuals to give unlimited contributions to the political parties.

The measure was aimed at undercutting McCain's profile as a reformer.