McCain hits Gore over fund-raising

By David Espo, Associated Press, 3/22/2000

ASHINGTON - After a presidential bid that catapulted him to national prominence, John McCain returned to the Senate yesterday with a withering attack on Vice President Al Gore and a pledge to help Republican candidates in the fall.

''I'd much rather be on the Straight Talk Express,'' the Arizona senator said, in a wistful reference to the campaign bus he rode to victory in seven GOP primaries before George W. Bush overwhelmed him.

Instead, McCain spent his day in the Senate's familiar confines. He accepted the plaudits of colleagues for his campaign. He commented on US policy in Kosovo, opposing any lifting of sanctions against Serbia.

He said he favors government regulation of tobacco, but he expressed skepticism that will happen until campaign finance laws are changed to curb the influence of big money. And he pledged to pursue his ''reform agenda'' in the final months of the congressional session and in the campaign this fall.

As a White House contender, McCain was fond of saying he was going to ''beat Al Gore like a drum.'' And at midday, in front of dozens of reporters, he offered a glimpse of what he had in mind.

Asked about Gore's recent comments emphasizing support for changes in the campaign finance laws, McCain instantly replied that the ''first, most important step is to see that a full and complete investigation'' takes place into the Clinton-Gore 1996 fund-raising scandals. The Democrats' search for funds, he said, amounted to ''incredible abuses of the institutions of government and every ethical standard'' of campaign finance.

If Gore is serious about adopting the campaign finance issue, McCain added, he will demand that Attorney General Janet Reno recommend appointment of an independent counsel to investigate.

Gore has denied wrongdoing, and Reno has refused to appoint an independent counsel, despite recommendations from FBI Director Louis Freeh and the head of her own task force, Charles LaBella.

McCain also called on Gore to ''renounce any involvement'' in soft money. Until he does both things, McCain said, Gore ''has no credibility'' as a reformer.

In rebuttal, Chris Lehane, Gore's campaign spokesman, said Bush was a ''Texas-sized obstacle to campaign finance reform. ... If John McCain had been his party's nominee there would not be soft money in this year's presidential campaign. Thus far, George W. Bush has ducked, he's dodged, he's bobbed, and he's weaved on campaign finance reform.''

Asked about supporting Bush, McCain said he intends ''to support the nominee of my party'' and will ''demand no concessions'' from him. He also gave a one-word reply when asked whether he would accept the vice presidential nomination: ''No.''

McCain said he had requests for campaign appearances from approximately 40 House members and would make appearances, in particular, for candidates who ''are committed to the reform agenda.'' But he was somewhat imprecise on what that meant. Support for a ban on soft money, for example, is not a requirement for his help, he said. ''They should be willing to negotiate and move forward on that important issue,'' he said.

McCain had frequently criticized his own party during the campaign, but yesterday was a day for niceties among Republicans. Behind the closed doors of the weekly GOP senators' luncheon, the party chairman, Jim Nicholson, praised McCain's candidacy and his ability to attract voters who don't always side with Republicans. There were warm words, as well, from majority leader Trent Lott and Don Nickles, the GOP whip, according to aides who attended.

Despite extensive media coverage, McCain sought to keep his return to the Senate as unobtrusive as possible. He did not alert colleagues, for example, about his intention to go to the Senate floor in late morning. As a result, McCain was the only Republican in the chamber when he spoke, and only one Democrat, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, was there to listen.