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Friday, 3 March, 2000, 08:30 GMT
Bush attacks McCain 'smear tactics'
Bush denies bigotry, third candidate Alan Keyes looks on
Bush debates with Republican rival Alan Keyes
In their final televised debate, George W Bush accused John McCain, his rival for the Republican presidential nomination, of smearing his reputation with claims of religious bigotry.

Calling me an anti-Catholic bigot is not right

George W Bush
Mr McCain criticised Mr Bush for failing to speak out against the anti-Catholic bias of a university he visited in South Carolina.

Mr Bush replied: "I regret I did not speak out against that school's anti-Catholic bias. I missed an opportunity. I make no excuses."


But he went on: "What I regret is the politics of smearing somebody's reputation ... Calling me an anti-Catholic bigot is not right."

Mr McCain said he had only given voters "straight talk".

"I did not call him an anti-Catholic bigot. I did not say anything except he was there and waited three weeks before he repudiated it," he said.

Mr Bush said the McCain team had issued a "Catholic Voters Alert" in telephone calls to voters in Michigan saying that their candidate had strongly criticised "this anti-Catholic bigotry".

McCain needs a good Super Tuesday to stay in the race
McCain needs a good Super Tuesday to stay in the race
He said his father, George Bush, and Ronald Reagan had both visited the Bob Jones university, which has a negative view of both Catholicism and inter-racial dating.

Mr McCain also fielded a question about his description of Christian evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance".

The remark is believed to have contributed to his defeats in this week's primaries in Virginia, Washington state, and North Dakota.

The Arizona senator said he stood by that speech.


The two rivals also clashed over campaign finance reform. Mr Bush accused Mr McCain of hypocritically accepting the kind of big money donations he wants to ban, while Mr McCain accused Mr Bush of hosting sleepovers at the residence he occupies as governor of Texas.

I'm a loyal Republican. The Republican Party is my home

John McCain
"Governor Bush just said he wants unlimited contributions from individuals ... Maybe that's why there's been the sleepovers in the governor's mansion," Mr McCain said.

Mr Bush said he only hosted friends and relatives.

Asked whether he would consider leaving the Republican Party to run as an independent, Mr McCain said he would never do so, and would support whoever won the nomination.

"I'm a loyal Republican. The Republican Party is my home," he said.

By his own campaign's account, Mr McCain needs a strong showing in the 13 primaries due next week, on Super Tuesday, to have a serious chance of victory.

Mr Bush currently has a lead of 161 delegates to Mr McCain's 103.

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28 Feb 00 |  Americas
Bush closes the gap
01 Mar 00 |  Americas
Analysis: Bush on the rise
29 Feb 00 |  Americas
Bush regains momentum
29 Feb 00 |  Election news
Bush the big spender
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