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GOP Candidates Get Ready For South Carolina Primary

By Ronald Brownstein

and Maria L. La Ganga

After toying with their styles and tweaking their strategies, John McCain and George W. Bush were back to basics Monday as they opened the final few days of campaigning before South Carolina’s crucial GOP primary.

Amid a flurry of new polls showing him narrowly trailing Bush, McCain returned to the core themes of political reform that helped him forge his landslide victory in New Hampshire.

Appearing before large crowds in Anderson and Greenwood, the senator from Arizona highlighted his decision last week to pull from the air his TV ads criticizing Bush. “Whether we win or lose, we will not run any negative ads in this campaign,” he said to loud applause at his first stop, in Anderson in the northwest corner of the state.

Bush, meantime, scored big ovations by pushing his familiar themes of local control of schools, tax cuts and increased military spending. “It’s not the government’s money when we’re talking about a surplus,” the Texas governor told supporters in North Augusta, near the Georgia border. “It’s the people’s money. I’ve been a tax cutter in Texas, and a tax reformer, and I’ll be the same thing in Washington, D.C.”

Asked by a black man about the controversy over the rebel flag that flies atop the South Carolina statehouse, Bush drew cheers from the mostly white audience when he gave his stock states’-rights answer: “This is an issue in your state that is only going to be solved by the people of your state.”

With recent surveys showing Bush opening a commanding lead among South Carolina’s conservative voters, McCain spent the day trying to shore up his standing on the right. At a lunchtime rally in Greenwood, he unveiled an endorsement from South Carolina Secretary of State Jim Miles, who had chaired Steve Forbes’ campaign in the state. Forbes dropped out of the race last week.

McCain promised to curb “pork-barrel” spending in Congress. The third Republican in the race, Alan Keyes, traveled to Bob Jones University in Greenville -- a school that bans interracial dating -- and said religious and racial intolerance must end. “There are folks who told me I shouldn’t come here because I am a black man and, I say it with pride, a Roman Catholic Christian, and I would not be received in that place on that account,” he said to the Founder’s Amphitorium.