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Rewards of poor behavior


COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The lesson that can be drawn from both the Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns is a familiar and depressing one: Negative campaigning works.

Vice President Al Gore stopped Bill Bradley in his tracks in New Hampshire with attack commercials. Now Gov. George W. Bush has done the same thing to Sen. John S. McCain here in South Carolina. In both cases, shamelessness was rewarded.

In the political world, Mr. Bradley and Mr. McCain are being blamed for not fighting back sooner and more effectively. Michael S. Dukakis proved 12 years ago that the candidate who doesn't fight back will pay a heavy price. Campaigns are not educational experiences; they are wars.

It can be argued, however, that the real villain in the piece is not the candidates but the voters who pay so little attention to the campaigns. In one election after another, they allow themselves to be bamboozled by glib slogans, slick packaging, lies and half-truths.

There has been no clearer example than Mr. Bush's success here in stealing Mr. McCain's reputation as a reformer, probably the Arizona senator's most valuable political asset.

After his loss in New Hampshire, Mr. Bush retreated to Austin for a weekend of meetings from which he emerged, like Superman stepping out of a telephone booth, as "the reformer with results." And the candidate was shameless in using the phrase to define himself. After he had done it for a few days, the Texas governor even managed to keep a straight face. Voters bought it. The exit poll taken here showed more primary voters considered Mr. Bush to be a reformer than Mr. McCain.

Another Bush thrust obviously contributed to that image. And it demonstrated how readily voters can be conned.

First, in the final week the Texan's campaign challenged Mr. McCain's well-documented claim to be the leading advocate of campaign finance reform. Mr. Bush suddenly came forward with a campaign reform plan that at first glance seemed to match Mr. McCain's in outlawing soft money.

Under closer scrutiny, it fell far short of the McCain-Feingold bill in Congress. And, more to the point, it included a "poison pill" provision already rejected by Congress -- a stipulation that the program include a requirement that union workers give specific approval of their dues being used to support a candidate.

Mr. Bush also ran a television commercial attacking Mr. McCain for being hypocritical on campaign finance reform by accepting money from the same special interests he seeks to limit. What the voters did not learn from their television sets is that Mr. Bush received more than Mr. McCain from these special-interest lobbyists.

Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore have made effective and selective use of their opponents' voting records. Mr. Gore's comeback against Mr. Bradley probably started during a debate in Iowa in which the vice president asked a farmer he had planted in the audience to stand, then asked Mr. Bradley why he had voted against flood relief for the man.

The former senator from New Jersey, clearly nonplussed, failed to come up with an answer and thus offered an irresistible sound bite to network news programs. In fact, Mr. Bradley had an answer. He had voted several times for federal funds for the farmers in Iowa after that flood in 1993. But he also voted, in common with most Democrats in the Senate, against this particular bill because it included other features he did not approve.

In much the same way, Mr. Bush assailed Mr. McCain for voting five times for the public financing of congressional campaigns. In fact, that proposal has never been part of Mr. McCain's plan. But, as a matter of tactics, he was obliged to vote for measures that included public funding, although with the certain knowledge those provisions would not survive.

Mr. Bradley and Mr. McCain entered the campaign on the premise that voters were so fed up with politics as usual they would respond to something different.

So Mr. Bradley offered himself as the candidate with big ideas who would lead the country toward, among other things, universal health insurance coverage and a new era of racial amity. And Mr. McCain came forward as the independent who dares to defy the party leaders.

Each has found a constituency. But neither has repealed the laws of the old politics. Negatives work.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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