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McCain Drops Out of Times / CNN Debate, Citing Scheduling Conflict

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sen. John McCain has pulled out of a Los Angeles Times/CNN debate planned later this week in California, with his aides saying Sunday that he could not alter his schedule.

The Arizona senator had agreed to the debate several months ago, but his campaign staffers changed plans after George W. Bush said earlier this month that he was not ready to commit to a date.

By the time Bush agreed last week to the Thursday debate at The Times in downtown Los Angeles, McCain staffers said, they had already made plans to go to New York.

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“We’re not going to hold our schedule open for them,” said Todd Harris, a McCain spokesman. “They were clearly less than enthusiastic about the idea of debating Sen. McCain.”

McCain’s no-show means that Bush and McCain will not debate before March 7, when 12 states will hold Republican contests.

Both The Times and CNN, which have begun advertising the event, said that if McCain does not appear the debate will take place with Bush and conservative radio commentator Alan Keyes.

But Maryanne McNellis, president of the Times National Edition and debate coordinator for the paper, said late Sunday that, “as far as we know, Sen. McCain is coming. We’re expecting him, and the debate will go on.”

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said Sunday that the Texas governor would honor his promise to attend the debate whether or not McCain is there.

“We will be there,” Fleischer said. “We’ll look forward to debating Alan Keyes and an empty chair.”

The question of whether to attend the event split the McCain camp.

Dan Schnur, the communications director for McCain’s campaign and a longtime California strategist, said McCain’s decision was a mistake that should be blamed on a “beltway mentality” among some advisors.

“It’s definitely a mistake, but the people of California will hopefully place more emphasis on their support for John McCain’s reform agenda and his fight to get the special interests out of government than on a tactical error at the staff level,” Schnur said.

Though the McCain campaign entourage will be in California on Thursday morning, it is flying to New York later that day for an evening rally.

Fleischer said McCain’s withdrawal from the debate is tacit acknowledgment by his campaign that California is unwinnable. The latest poll has McCain losing to Bush by 25 percentage points among likely Republican voters in the state.

But McCain staffers denied the charge, saying they were unable to change the plans in New York.

McCain has agreed to a debate Sunday on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press,” but Fleischer said Bush had already committed to taping another news show that day.

An audio analysis by Times political writer Mark Z. Barabak on Sen. John McCain’s decision not to participate in Thursday’s GOP debate is available on The Times’ Web site: https://www.latimes.com/debates


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