If American presidential contests are typically a race to the broad middle ground of politics, the current primary campaign is showing how the road leading there can be full of forks and detours. Some of these side trips are useful, clarifying issues. Some are dead-ends that require a quick retreat.
In the latter category are the nasty phone calls made by unofficial backers of George W. Bush and John McCain in the run-up to votes in South Carolina and Michigan.
On the Bush side are messages put out by religious-right spokesmen that aim to pillory Mr. McCain as pro-abortion (while the candidate himself, like his opponent, consistently takes an anti-abortion stance). Worse, the anti-McCain calls attacked the senator's national campaign chairman, labeling New Hampshire's Warren Rudman a "vicious bigot." Mr. Rudman, a moderate Republican, former US senator, and a Jew, has at times voiced strong criticism of the religious right.
From McCain supporters came phoned messages accusing the Bush camp of anti-Catholic sentiments. The Texas governor's alliance with Christian conservatives, and particularly his recent campaign visit to Bob Jones University, may be fair game for political comment and criticism. But charges of religious bigotry cross a line toward slander.
Both candidate's official campaigns deny, probably truthfully, any role in these underhanded tactics. But the phoned messages clearly have some organization behind them. Both candidates should vigorously denounce them. It's not too late to correct this wrong turn.
McCain's victories in Michigan and Arizona, following Bush's big win in South Carolina, guarantee at least a few more weeks of hard-fought campaigning. This is positive, a boon to highly interested voters.
The GOP competitors, for all their intense verbal battling, share a lot of common ground policywise. But they have some clear differences on tax policy, campaign finance reform, and other issues. Those differences should be explored. At heart, however, Bush and and McCain are competing to prove who's most electable in November. Questions of character and readiness to lead will continue to be central.
The Democrats will have their own intense competition leading to the decisive March 7 primaries. This week's tartly worded Gore-Bradley debate in Harlem left no doubt of that.
Dynamics and strategies will shift as the candidates concentrate on new regions of the country (notably California) and differently structured primaries (fewer open ones). May the competition be hard, but clean. No more sleazy phone calls.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society