Why Bush and McCain Agreed on a No-Mud Pact

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They never thought it'd come to this. In the early days of this election cycle, the GOP's top brass were patting themselves on the back for producing a new Teflon candidate — a man everybody thought would breeze through the primaries unscathed. But by Monday night, wearied by two weeks of hostile six-way debates and faced with a viable challenger in the form of John McCain, George W. Bush was forced to lean on the 11th Commandment of Republican campaigning — don't hurt the party. And thus Bush and McCain staged a minor p.r. coup, shaking hands on a negative campaigning embargo. "This is a way for George Bush to distinguish himself from the other candidates, by painting himself as a different kind of candidate from Steve Forbes," said TIME Washington correspondent James Carney.

"For McCain," add Carney, "it plays into his whole thing of billing himself as a fresh alternative." Perhaps more important for McCain, it may help insulate him from his recent FCC mini-scandal. The Arizona senator, who has staked his campaign on campaign finance reform, has been red in the face since allegations surfaced that he'd tried to sway federal regulators in favor of a cable company that contributed to his campaign. The irony in all this is that the Democratic race — which had been billed as a party-defining ideological war — has been bereft of much drama. While Keyes, Bauer, Hatch and Forbes have kept Bush and McCain accountable to the right, Bill Bradley and Al Gore have been almost indistinguishable on most subjects. The relief will no doubt be palpable when the primaries are over and the candidates can bite into an opponent with truly different policies.