Bush was trying to crawl out of the muck he dove into at Bob Jones University four-weeks earlier, and McCain was declaring sainthood.
The Arizona senator was in Virginia branding televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell "agents of intolerance," and Bush was in Washington state dodging questions about whether he disagreed with the two venomous preachers on anything.
Bush, who is proving to be his own worst enemy, kept insisting "people know my heart" as he proceeded to smear McCain for what he branded negative campaigning.
It has been well known that Bob Jones I, II and III were never poster boys for religious and racial tolerance, yet it took W. nearly four weeks to "regret" that his appearance was a "missed opportunity." Long before that Feb 2 speech, it was no secret that the Jones boys forbid interracial dating and labeled W.'s own father "a devil," the Pope "the Antichrist," the Catholic Church a "Satanic cult" and Mormonism a "cult."
Yet W. didn't utter a single objection until reporters pressed him afterwards; then he lamely insisted he's not anti-Catholic because his brother is a Catholic convert, and his sister-in-law, also Catholic, is "a Mexican girl."
The power of the religious right was just too tempting for W. to resist in the wake of his New Hampshire embarrassment, and his pandering to bigotry contributed mightily to his defeat in Michigan. It took an intense drubbing by his rivals and, mostly, friends and Catholics in his own party, to generate belated second thoughts.
W. is not a bigot, but he's not a quick study, either.
Richard Nixon advised Republicans to run to the right for the nomination and to the center in the general election, but Bush has moved so far to the right -- he calls hard-core conservative McCain a liberal -- that he may have trouble recovering enough for the general election if he is nominated
His rightward lurch is not just a post-New Hampshire phenomenon; last year he pleaded with Pat Buchanan to stay in the GOP and refused to meet with a gay Republican group, lest it offend the homophobes on the religious right.
In an embarrassing incident last month, he praised the Rev. Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam as a group that preaches "love your neighbor," not because he admires the hate-spewing preacher but because no one ever told W. that Farrakhan's real message is "hate thy neighbor, especially if he's white or Jewish."
And it is no better when he embraces the likes of Robertson, who spreads his own brand of hatred. Robertson ran a phone campaign in Michigan two-weeks ago bitterly attacking McCain, whose sponsorship of campaign finance reform legislation, Robertson fears, could threaten his source of money and power.
Anti-Catholicism has traditionally played well in South Carolina but it is hurting Bush and the GOP elsewhere, particularly in the industrial states, hence his belated "regrets."
Compounding GOP problems among Catholic voters was the recent decision of the House Republican leadership to pick a Protestant chaplain instead of the Catholic priest who had been recommended by their own search committee.
Catholics are major voting blocs in many of the tightest Congressional races this fall, and the fallout from Bob Jones Univ. and the chaplain incidents could be crucial.
Catholics aren't the only targets in this campaign.
McCain had his own version of the Jones boys. The senator says he wants the GOP to be "the party of Abraham Lincoln, not Bob Jones," but as for his $20,000-a-month chief strategist in South Carolina he picked Richard Quinn, the editor of a magazine that called Lincoln "a consummate conniver, manipulator and liar," and who sells bumper stickers quoting John Wilkes Booth, "Abraham Lincoln, sic semper tyrannis."
Neither Bush nor McCain would risk offending the red-neck vote in the Old South by criticizing the flying of the Confederate battle flag over the South Carolina Statehouse. They hid behind declarations of state's rights and tradition, conveniently overlooking the events of 1861-'65. In fact, the flag wasn't hoisted over the state capitol building until almost a century after the Civil War, and that was not in honor of the fallen, but in protest of the U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering school desegregation.
The Bush advisor behind W.'s famous oxymoron "compassionate conservative" is a Jewish convert to Christianity, Marvin Olasky, who attacked three-Jewish journalists critical of Bush by suggesting they practice "the religion of Zeus."
Robertson launched a vicious attack on McCain's top national advisor through recorded phone messages to Michigan voters. He called former Sen. Warren Rudman, who is Jewish, "a vicious bigot who wrote that conservative Christians in politics are anti-abortion zealots, homophobes and would-be censors."
Bush pleaded ignorant of his friend's phone campaign, and Robertson defended it as "educational." Both disavowed other phone attacks on Rudman, intentionally mispronouncing his name to make it sound more Jewish.
One of the 13 Super Tuesday primary states is Georgia; I can't wait to see who Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker endorses.
Douglas M. Bloomfield, a former staff member of AIPAC, writes about the Mideast and politics of Jewish life in America.
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