A Wounded McCain Is Beaten Around by Bush

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Look for George W. Bush's smile/smirk to get even wider. While the Texas governor came out swinging on taxes and Social Security in Thursday night's candidates' debate, his only serious rival for the GOP nomination — Senator John McCain — appeared to be suffering an image meltdown. Even before the debate began, the media had the long-time champion of campaign finance reform on the rack over interventions he made on behalf of his own donors. At issue was a letter the Arizona senator had written, in his capacity as Senate Commerce Committee chairman, urging that the Federal Communications Commission expedite the processing of an application for broadcast licenses by a company owned by Lowell "Bud" Paxson — his largest campaign donor.

"McCain is suffering the consequences of holding himself up as a different kind of politician," says TIME Washington correspondent Karen Tumulty. "While there was nothing improper about the letter on the face of it, and McCain has repeatedly warned that soft money corrupts 'us all,' his populist appeal makes him much more vulnerable to anything that looks like politics as usual." With McCain bleeding from a self-inflicted wound, Bush simply had to dance around and jab for a clear points victory, graciously avoiding mention of McCain's FCC troubles. "The golden rule of politics is that when your opponent is hurting himself, you stay out of his way," says Tumulty. But Bush did take advantage of his challenger's sudden vulnerability to press home his claim to the Reagan Republican mantle. McCain's campaign finance reform plan would hurt the GOP, he warned. And Bush not only repeated his father's "no new taxes" pledge, but also promised a tax cut, leaving McCain to counter that saving Social Security should take priority over cutting taxes — a position familiar to anyone who's listened in on a White House media conference in recent years.