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Published: Wednesday, 3/24/2004

The candidates go negative

LOOK who's stoutly defending Sen. John Kerry from Republican attacks that the Democratic presidential nominee is "wrong on defense." None other than Sen. John McCain, who has been a target of the GOP smear machine himself.

"No, I do not believe he [Senator Kerry] is, quote, weak on defense," the Arizona Republican told a television interviewer the other day. "I don't agree with him on some issues, clearly, but I decry this negativism that's going on on both sides."

No doubt Senator McCain was thinking back to the South Carolina presidential primary in 2000, when he was leading George W. Bush for the GOP nomination.

Mr. Bush won that election, but only after his supporters, using a rush of last-minute telephone "push polls," informed voters that Senator McCain and his wife had "a black baby," a statement infused with racial overtones in the deeply conservative South.

In fact, the McCains do have a daughter, Bridget, whose skin is dark. They adopted the child from an orphanage in Bangladesh, but never mind truth and circumstance. This was the sort of despicable tactic that undoubtedly flashes in Senator McCain's mind when he views the TV spots now aimed at Senator Kerry by Mr. Bush.

The senators are old friends who share the common experience of distinguished Navy service during the Vietnam War, Senator McCain as a pilot who spent five years as a prisoner of war and Senator Kerry as the skipper of a river attack boat. Both were highly decorated.

This record is exceedingly threatening to the Bush Administration, most of whose members either never served in the military at all or, like Mr. Bush, avoided combat by using connections to elbow into an oversubscribed National Guard unit. So it's no surprise that they feel a compulsion to minimize in others what they can never equal themselves.

Moreover, negative campaigning is employed in politics because, as tacticians on both sides know, it works, especially with unsophisticated and less knowledgeable voters.

Nonetheless, Senator McCain's crisp rejoinder to his ostensible Republican allies is a welcome reminder that even politicians can disagree without being disagreeable.



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