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Reconsider, Senator

Sen. John McCain’s decision to back out of Thursday’s presidential debate is unfortunate and bound to damage his prospects in the March 7 California primary. We urge him to reconsider and come to The Los Angeles Times to debate fellow Republican candidates George W. Bush and Alan Keyes.

McCain’s rejection of the invitation is inconsistent with the Arizona senator’s image as an insurgent willing to go virtually anywhere and talk to anyone about his campaign finance reform program and his promise to break the power of special interests. Candidates who decline to debate usually are smug front-runners who feel they have nothing to gain and much to lose in confrontation with challengers--as was the case with Bush early in this campaign. The Texas governor corrected that flawed strategy.

Wednesday’s Democratic debate with Al Gore and Bill Bradley and Thursday’s GOP matchup are intended to give voters in California--and in other states, via debate co-sponsor CNN--exposure to the candidates without the spin of political ads. We’ve always supported frequent face-to-face debates, regardless of sponsorship or location, as the best way to have an informed electorate. This week’s debates are the only ones scheduled before California’s March 7 primary.

The McCain campaign blames Bush for the situation, noting that the Texan waited until last week to agree to take part in the Los Angeles debate. During that delay, the McCain forces say, they scheduled events in New York that they now say cannot be canceled. But McCain’s excuse seems thin. Candidates cancel or postpone events all the time if it’s in their interest to do so. Appearing here is in McCain’s.

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Polls so far show Bush with a strong lead among registered Republican voters, the only ones whose votes count toward California’s 162 winner-take-all GOP delegates. In the state’s new open primary, Democrats and independents can vote for McCain, or any other candidate, but those votes don’t matter for the purpose of awarding delegates. Still, if McCain were to lose the GOP vote but beat Bush in the overall popular vote--a good possibility--the party would have to think long and hard about its delegate rules.

McCain officials deny that the senator is writing off California in favor of New York, where polls indicate he has a better chance of winning. But it seems almost impossible for McCain to win the nomination without strong California support. Certainly he faces an uphill battle against Bush here, but isn’t that what McCain’s whole campaign has been about?

Meanwhile, Bush has troubles of his own. On Sunday, he finally expressed regret about having spoken at Bob Jones University in South Carolina without addressing the racial and religious intolerance associated with the fundamentalist private college. In a letter to Cardinal John O’Connor, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, Bush said, “It was a missed opportunity causing needless offense, which I deeply regret.” Bush had reached out strongly to the religious conservatives who helped him carry South Carolina Feb. 19 and, as is often the case in primaries, now faces a very different electorate, much of it less conservative Roman Catholic, in New York. It wasn’t quite clear whether Bush was acknowledging that it was morally wrong of him to seek voter support at Bob Jones.

Bush has been lashing out at McCain for his campaign’s use of telephoned messages to Michigan voters that took note of Bush’s visit to Bob Jones and of past anti-Catholic statements attributed to the school’s leaders. McCain at first claimed his campaign had nothing to do with such calls, then acknowledged it did but denied that the calls were intended to label Bush as anti-Catholic.

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Monday, McCain delivered a blistering address in Virginia in which he called Bush a “Pat Robertson Republican,” a reference to the founder of the Christian Coalition. He called Robertson and others of the religious right “agents of intolerance.”

This mixture of religion and political invective is the strongest and most public since 1960, when John F. Kennedy was opposed by some simply because he was Roman Catholic, which to bigots meant he would owe fealty to the pope, not to the people. Kennedy was forced to defend his ability to be a president for all Americans. Now it’s almost the reverse. Some candidates have this time raised, rather competitively, the issue of their personal Christian devotion. The Constitution’s clear line between church and state may not apply to political campaigns, but this one could make voters wish that it did.


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