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Bush, McCain Trade Barbs

February 8, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain charged one another Monday with running smear campaigns disguised as telephone polling in South Carolina, a key Republican primary state.

Pollsters for both camps are calling voters and asking pointed questions about their opponents, a practice that could be seen as ``push polling″ in which an interviewer distorts a candidate’s position in an attempt to sway voters.

Bush’s aides denied they were conducting push polls because only 300 people were called by a firm hired by the campaign, well short of the ``thousands and thousands″ of calls normally made during such surveys.

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said it was McCain who had commissioned a push poll _ something the Arizona senator’s camp denied.

``Senator McCain’s campaign is calling up large numbers of people and distorting Governor Bush’s position″ on tax cuts, Fleischer said.

McCain’s aides said their pollster, Bill McInturff, wrote a script that is asking for voter’s opinions of the candidates’ positions.

``We do not, and will not, do push polling of any kind,″ said McCain spokesman Dan McLagan. The campaign wouldn’t say how many calls have been made.

Neither campaign would release full interview scripts for the polls.

McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky said the campaign asks ``which of the following statements best describes″ Bush, McCain, neither of the candidates, both of them or don’t know. He offered one example phrase: ``Is someone I like and trust.″

``That’s a real poll question,″ Opinsky said.

``Push polling has nothing to do with how many people are polled,″ Opinsky added. ``It has to do with the negative distorted information displayed as fact under the guise of a real poll.″

McCain’s supporters started the volley of accusations Monday with a press conference in Columbia, S.C., featuring a young woman who said she received a call on Sunday that distorted McCain’s positions.

``Total misrepresentation is pretty much what I’d call it,″ said Suzette Latsko, 22, who had attended a McCain rally but hadn’t decided whether to vote for him.

According to notes Latsko took, the pollster asked her:

``Do you support McCain’s effort to pass the largest tax increase in history?″

Bush spokesman Fleischer said the script asks voters to state whether they approve or disapprove of the following: ``John McCain says he never voted for a tax increase, but he wrote legislation that proposed the largest tax increase in U.S. history.″

The statement, Fleischer said, refers to McCain’s perennial sponsorship of tobacco reform legislation, which proposed billions of dollars in tobacco taxes. In recent years, the bill also offered funding to help farmers find other lines of work. South Carolina is one of the nation’s top producers of tobacco.

Latsko also said she was asked: ``How do you feel about McCain’s plan to publicly fund elections?″

Fleischer said the script does not contain the phrase ``publicly funded,″ but states that McCain ``has written legislation that would use taxpayer dollars to pay for political campaigns.″ McCain has said he opposes public funding of elections.

``Senator McCain’s supporters are twisting the words in an attempt to make it inaccurate,″ Fleischer said.

Fleischer said the campaign uses the responses to ``determine how much familiarity they had with Senator McCain’s record, with the status of the race in South Carolina and with issues that they care about″ to help Bush shape his message.

McCain’s aides scoffed.

``Like pornography, you know a push poll when you see one,″ said Opinsky.

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