Canceled debate

A link to the past

With new polls showing his campaign dead in the water among California Republicans, Arizona Sen. John McCain has pulled out of a long-scheduled debate with Texas Gov. George Bush, set for Thursday in Los Angeles.

McCain campaign officials tried desperately yesterday to put the best face on their withdrawal, even as a new Field Poll showed Bush far ahead among likely Republican voters in the winner-take-all race for the state’s 162 GOP delegates.
Top campaign officials attributed McCain’s decision to Bush’s earlier reluctance to appear at the debate.

“We had agreed to do this debate a long time ago, and Gov. Bush said he wasn’t going to do it,” McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky said yesterday. “We aren’t going to hold our schedule together forever.”

But Opinsky said McCain will debate Bush on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, a national TV show that will reach millions of Americans.

Still, just last week, the McCain campaign was openly derisive of Bush’s reluctance to commit to a California debate — and promised its own candidate would be there.

“John McCain believes it’s important for the people of California to see and hear the candidates talk about the issues,” McCain communications director Dan Schnur told The Chronicle last week. “Thirty- three million Californians are worth that attention . . . and we’ll be there, either way.”

As recently as Thursday, when he was in California, McCain was talking about his plans to debate Bush; even last night, McCain’s own Web site listed his California debate- watching parties. The CNN-Los Angeles Times debate was the only scheduled head-to-head meeting of the two candidates in California before the primary, a week from tomorrow.

McCain’s campaign said the candidate confirmed to CNN on Thursday that he would not appear. But until yesterday afternoon, when rumors swirled about the pullout, McCain — who has touted his “straight talk” politics — gave no public indication that he intended to duck the nationally televised showdown.

The bait and switch on the debate left the Arizona senator — whose favorite campaign line is “I’ll always tell you the truth” — wide open to blistering criticism from his rivals.

“Clearly, this is more double-talk from the McCain campaign,” said Alixe Mattingly, a spokeswoman for Bush. “Pulling out of this debate at the last minute is an indication that they’re pulling out of California, where McCain’s antagonistic message clearly isn’t working.”

The decision to avoid debating Bush clearly upset some of McCain’s top advisers.

“It’s definitely a mistake, but hopefully, the people of California feel strongly enough about the McCain reform agenda . . . to overlook a staff error and come out and vote for John McCain,” said Schnur, a longtime California political operative. “John McCain is completely committed to California; unfortunately, our staff’s position on this debate sends just the opposite message.”

California Republicans have been worried all along that the two leading GOP candidates are not giving the nation’s most populous state the respect it deserves. Bush’s campaign stop in Los Angeles last week, for example, was his first visit to the state since November.

Bush supporters quietly reveled in McCain’s surprise announcement.

“From a distance, it seems like the `Straight Talk Express’ is careening off the exit ramp in California,” said Leslie Goodman, a Republican communications consultant and Bush backer, in a reference to McCain’s campaign bus. “They claimed they’d make California a priority because it was win or die, and now they don’t care enough to debate.”