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 TIME on politics TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics - Storypage, with TIME and TIME

Most GOP presidential contenders pledge not to go negative

January 11, 2000
Web posted at: 1:19 a.m. EST (0619 GMT)

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan (CNN) -- With the official kickoff to election 2000 a mere two weeks away, and the race considered close, some of the GOP candidates pledged not to run negative ads during Monday's debate at Calvin College, a Christian school in Grand Rapids.

It was a tamer clutch of GOP presidential candidates that took the stage, as all six candidates shifted their focus from acrimonious attacks on one another and back to more traditional Republican themes of taxes, trade, and attacking the Clinton administration. Monday's debate marked the third time that Gary Bauer, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, millionaire publisher Steve Forbes, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Alan Keyes and Arizona Sen. John McCain shared the debate stage in the course of the last seven days.

Bush and Forbes
Bush, left, shakes hands with Forbes before the start of the GOP debate in Grand Rapids on Monday  

The prime time debate, which aired live on MSNBC at 7 p.m. EST, was moderated by NBC's Tim Russert -- whose aggressive questioning in New Hampshire last week prompted Keyes to ask when Russert would declare his own candidacy -- and included a panel from Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV. It will be re-broadcast by C-SPAN at a later date.

The debate's lead-off question pertained to Forbes' negative ad, the first of its kind in the campaign, alleging that as governor of Texas, Bush reneged on a 1994 pledge by proposing an increase in the business tax and sales tax in 1997. But Bush vigorously defended himself, maintaining that as governor, "I led my state in 1997 to the largest tax cut in Texas history. ... One thing that makes the American people cynical is negative advertising on TV. The other thing is that those of you who follow politics need to look at the results. People from all walks of life received a substantial tax cut under my administration."

When asked later in the debate whether the candidates would eschew negative ads, Bush quickly took the pledge, saying, "I don't mind debates. I do mind Republicans tearing each other down. The mission is to pick the best candidate so we can capture the White House in the year 2000."

McCain went so far as to step across the stage to Bush, pledging: "I'd like to shake hands right now. We will not run a negative ad."

"Some people want to pretend we don't have an adversarial political system, but we do," Keyes said. "We should not only tolerate it, we should encourage that kind of debate."

Forbes said, "If a man breaks a pledge, the public ought to know it."

Bush continued to defend his proposed plan for $483 billion in tax tax cuts over five years, a plan that has come under fire from groups such as Citizens for Tax Justice because they say a majority of the cuts would benefit wealthy Americans. Bush said: "I am a tax-cutting person. I know how to get it done. I have laid out a plan that is conservative and a plan that is compassionate."

But Forbes stuck to his guns, waving a copy of Bush's 1994 pledge, saying, "A promise made should be a promise kept."

And McCain said he remained deeply concerned about Bush's plan, asserting that it would spend the surplus, and more. Instead, he emphasized the need to pay down the debt and shore up Social Security.

"I am very much in favor of tax cuts," McCain said. "But I'm not sure we need to give two-thirds of that tax cut to the wealthiest people in America." McCain is scheduled to speak about his own revised plan Tuesday in New Hampshire. That plan would assume that the government would have a non-Social Security surplus of $500 billion over the next 10 years, and would dedicate 62 percent of that surplus to shoring up Social Security. The Social Security program is forecast to begin running a deficit in 2014.

"I believe everybody should get a tax cut," Bush said. "My plan has been called risky by those inside Washington, but I think it's risky to leave that money in Washington.

Russert asked Forbes whether Michigan taxpayers should comply with a law mandating that they voluntarily send in the 6 percent sales tax on purchases they've made over the Internet. Forbes said, "The Internet, overall is stimulating commerce.... It is a net wealth creator. But in Washington and in Lansing they have this mentality, if it's out there and it's growing then we've got to get our hands on it."

The candidates largely agreed that schools and libraries should place filters on the Internet to protect children from pornography. McCain has recently said he supports the use of such filtering devices, and both Bauer and Keyes touched on themes of moral decency. When asked whether it was a free speech issue, Keyes said, "It isn't a free speech issue; it's a matter of public decency."

The debate was peppered with questions on foreign policy, from whether the candidates supported a Palestinian state, to trade with China and whether the Clinton administration did the right thing by supporting the Immigration and Naturalization Service's decision to send 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba.

When McCain was asked whether he would ever negotiate with hijackers -- in a reference to the recent hijacking in India -- he said, "I would not. ... Never. Next question."

Echoing McCain, Bush said, "The president of the United States should not negotiate with terrorists in any way, shape or form."

Monday night marked the first time that the AIDS epidemic was mentioned in the GOP debates, as the candidates were asked whether the U.S. should appropriate $300 million to fight AIDS in Africa, as proposed by Vice President Al Gore at the United Nations. Although Bauer said he would rather first focus on Americans, most of the candidates said they would spend the money as long as they felt it would be allocated in a useful way.

"If I had confidence that that money would be well spent I would do it," McCain said. And Bush added, "I think before we spend a dime we need to make sure it's going to the people it's intended to help. But this is a compassionate land."

Only Hatch flat-out agreed with the Clinton administration. "Vice President Gore did what was right today. This administration did what is right today," he said, noting his own efforts in the Senate on behalf of AIDS patients. "We need to do everything we can to help people with their health care problems. And as far as watching the money, we have a lot of nonprofits in this country that would gladly go over and watch how that money is spent. If we don't do that, we're not a good nation anymore."

Bauer led-off the candidates' own question and answer section of the debate. "I'll end your tension and mystery as to who I'm going to pick," he said, turning to Bush. "Let's pretend you have won the nomination at the Republican national convention in Philadelphia."

"I accept the premise," Bush replied, amid audience laughter.

Bauer once again attempted to pin the Texas governor down on abortion, an issue on which he has dogged the front-runner throughout the campaign. "Will you pledge to preserve the Ronald Reagan plank on life in the Republican party platform? Will you finally say you will enforce a litmus test for judicial nominees? Will you vow to pick a pro-life running mate?"

"I'm going to pick a vice president who can be president ," Bush said, reiterating his earlier position. "And I will work to keep the Republican party pro-life. That's what I'm going to do, and I appreciate your assumption that I am going to be the Republican nominee."

"I like you, George" Keyes said, who was up next. "That is not going to get you on my short list." Bush shot back to audience laughter.

When the topic turned to gays in the military, and whether the administration's policy of "don't ask don't tell" is working, the talk mostly turned to the military's state of readiness. After McCain again restated his position that the current policy is working, Russert asked him, "Did you ever serve with a gay person? "Sure. Absolutely," McCain replied.

McCain sent a campaign finance shot across the bow to Hatch and tied in Monday's announced merger between America Online, the largest Internet service provider, with media giant Time Warner, which is CNN's parent company. "If we let the special interests play, and the American people no longer have a voice, we'll see more and more of these mergers," he said.

Hatch replied, "... I'm very concerned about this merger. These are two of the largest telecom companies in the world." He added, however, that he believed McCain's campaign finance plan is unconstitutional and "would leave the Republicans high and dry."

With more than a minute in the debate left over, Russert asked: "America has just begun the 21st century. if you could select two items for a time capsule that best represents America in the 21st Century. what would they be?"

Most of the candidates named the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. McCain said, "Along with those, perhaps Einstein's theory of relativity. Perhaps." Bush would include a speech from Martin Luther King to "show the heart of America and the microchip to show the entrepreneurial spirit of the country. " Forbes said he would include "a grain of sand because that's the basis of silicon. ... a true symbol of American inventiveness." And Keyes said he would add "a couple of ballots, to represent just what makes this system work. Hatch would include a "few pictures" to show the diversity of the nation.

Michigan could be a make-or-break mark for the candidates, as the state's 58 delegates are more than the combined total of Iowa (25), New Hampshire (17) and Delaware (12), the three states leading up to South Carolina's February 19 primary. Michigan has moved up its primary this year to February 22. Arizona, McCain's home state, also will hold its primary on that day.

Until last week, Bush had planned to skip the debate. But in Michigan, which is often referred to as a "firewall state" for Bush, the Texas governor is seen as vulnerable to McCain, who is making a serious effort there. When asked earlier Monday whether Michigan represents such a firewall, Bush simply said: "I don't accept that premise." But Bush's participation drew new attention to the debate, and nearly 300 members of the media were expected to attend.

If McCain wins, however, Michigan becomes a very important battleground.

The debate comes just two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, which will be followed by the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. A new poll by the American Research Group has Bush and McCain in a virtual dead heat for the GOP New Hampshire presidential primary.

In the poll, Bush leads McCain 34 to 32 percent, but that is a statistical tie due to the poll's margin of error of 4 percentage points.

CNN's Jeff Flock and The Associated Press contributed to this report, which was written by Amy Paulson.


ELECTION 2000

McCain reports raising more than $6 million in quarter (12-29-99)

Reform Party splinters over convention, ideology, court action (12-29-99)

For politicians, shaking hands is tough, grimy work (12-29-99)

Forbes would do more to find illegal Internet sites (12-29-99)

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