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McCain and Gore are our choices on March 7; Presidential vision: These candidates offer qualities needed to meet 21st-century challenges.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TODAY, The Sun departs from its recent practice of not endorsing in presidential contests.

The Suns present leadership believes that we have an obligation to offer guidance in all significant elections, including the presidential election. Thats not to say we overestimate our impact; voters have too wide a range of sources of information and commentary for the role of newspapers in electoral politics -- especially at the presidential level -- not to have changed.

Whether readers heed our advice is up to them. This newspapers candidate recommendations arent about picking winners. We tell you what we think should happen rather than try to predict the outcome of elections.

So, what follows are our judgments on the qualifications of the candidates seeking the major parties presidential nominations on March 7 in Maryland.

McCain for Republicans

Trust and character are central issues in the election of our nations president for the next four years, a legacy of the turmoil of the Clinton years that overshadows various shades of policy issue difference.

Leadership is dependent upon the public trust. Leadership must transcend rigid party lines and platforms, hewing to fundamental principles while open to effective compromise. The nation in these times demands a centrist leader, not a spokesman for either end of the political spectrum.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN of Arizona is the Republican candidate who best represents and embraces these values. He offers a strong chance to rebuild the nation and transform an increasingly right-wing GOP. He deserves the vote of Republicans and independents in Marylands March 7 primary.

Mr. McCain has served 17 years in Congress, elected three times as senator. Hes chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce and Telecommunications Committee.

A Navy fighter pilot who spent nearly six years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and the son and grandson of Navy admirals, Mr. McCain has exhibited exceptional leadership and strength of character.

Yet hes no puppet candidate of the military establishment: While supporting a strong national defense system, hed trim spending on expensive new weaponry, while improving treatment of military personnel. Mr. McCain has clashed with the top brass on banning land mines and with voters facing the loss of a redundant New Hampshire shipyard; hes for both decisions.

Campaign finance reform, tobacco regulation and cutting pork barrel spending are his cornerstone policy issues, stands that have distanced him from many colleagues in Congress.

He wants to limit the huge soft money contributions of the wealthy, big labor and big business in elections. Mr. McCain is no darling of the congressional establishment. He bluntly criticizes fellow legislators and shows little respect for the conventions of seniority.

That straight-talking attitude is said by critics to reflect a dangerous temper. Yet he has worked, and compromised, with colleagues to win passage of legislation. Military people say he was often open to other ideas, even in that rigid command-obey structure.

He may be a reformer, but he is not a radical. In truth, the senator embraces many of the planks of the Republican platform and is correctly termed a Western conservative. Hes firmly opposed to abortion and gun control, favors less government regulation and spending, gets high marks from the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.

However, he would limit income tax cuts and use the federal surplus to cut the publics $3 trillion debt and bolster Social Security and Medicare. These positions have found popular support in early primaries.

His grasp of foreign affairs, from Kosovo to Cuba to China is exceptional.

With an openness that does not hint of arrogance, Mr. McCain has emerged in this campaign as a plain-speaking populist and an effective foil to the distant, traditional Republican establishment typified by his principal opponent, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.

With only one-fourth of the $70 million war chest raised by the former presidents son, Mr. McCain has conducted an aggressive campaign that has energized voters with his personality and an independence that is seemingly beholden to no special interests.

He has invariably taken the underdogs role in states with Republican governors, who were solidly and early committed to Mr. Bush. But his campaign has gained staying power through grass-roots appeal, and his appeal to a diverse electorate provides new hope for a transformed Republican Party in the post-Clinton, post-Gingrich era.

Despite his campaign reform stance, Mr. McCain is vulnerable to criticism that hes used corporate jets and accepted the hospitality of businesses that are regulated by measures before his Senate commerce committee.

Yet theres little evidence he has abused the chairmanship for blatant political favor.

Hopefully, he has learned that lesson from the 1980s, when he was one of the infamous Keating Five -- senators who were vocal advocates of Charles Keating, while receiving substantial campaign donations from the savings and loan fraud artist. Thats an old blemish that wont go away, Mr. McCain acknowledges, and a constant reminder for him.

In Maryland, where the Republican Party is a decided minority, the GOP primary wont attract a lot of voters despite the fact that it is also open to registered independents. But the issue will be the same as for the rest of the nation: the quality of leadership, character and trust in the next president of the United States. John McCain is the candidate who meets those high standards.

Gore for Democrats

While Bill Bradley quit the Senate to spend two years preparing to run for president, AL GORE spent seven years preparing to be president. He is a student of what President Clinton did well and did poorly. He is ready.

That alone does not entitle Mr. Gore to the job. He must earn it. He is trying. Mr. Gore was one of the most engaged vice presidents of the past century. He was part of Clinton successes, notably deficit reduction and streamlined government and foreign policy.

Yet he is not implicated in the worst failures of the administration. Most came in areas assigned at the beginning to first lady Hillary Clinton, such as health care, selecting the attorney general and replacing the White House travel staff.

The administration righted itself after Mrs. Clinton, its chief political adviser, took herself out of operations, giving Mr. Gore a larger role.

Nor is Mr. Gore tainted by Bill Clintons character defects. Whatever the truths of the matters that independent counsel Kenneth Starr investigated, Mr. Gore was no part of them.

Ideologically, he can be called a Clinton Democrat. So, in broad terms, is Mr. Bradley. Each is a centrist with a liberal heart and conservative brain. The policy differences they have been exaggerating are largely contrived, as if there were no Congress.

Mr. Gore favors more accessible health insurance for Americans, tempered by the need to pay down the national debt and maintain the robust economy. He is an authentic environmentalist who thinks the most important job of a U.S. president is to keep the planet safe for future generations.

Mr. Gore may not always sound as elevated as Mr. Bradley, but he has a firmer grasp of the possibilities and limits of office, the relationship of one policy to another and dealing with a fractious Congress.

For these reasons, The Sun endorses Al Gore in the Maryland primary for the Democratic nomination for president. He would be a more effective president on Day One.

Despite the Washington press corps mantra that Gore rhymes with bore, the vice president is a seasoned campaigner, extraordinarily well-informed and tough in debates.

His greatest weaknesses are defects of this competitiveness. He has misrepresented his record. He profited from tobacco before turning against it. Wanting to convince the party he was no Boy Scout, he crossed the line on campaign fund-raising in 1996, proving his point.

These are real failings, for which Mr. Bradley attacks him, as will Republicans. They must be weighed against Mr. Gores political virtues. He comes out on balance looking like a better nominee than Mr. Bradley.

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