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Bush to target McCain on Social Security

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. – The first face-to-face meeting since the New Hampshire primary is also the last before South Carolina votes, and John McCain and George W. Bush have different challenges in their debate tonight.

For McCain, it’s to regain the high ground as a reformer after being pounded on his record by Bush and running a negative ad against him.

For Bush, it’s to maintain the pressure on McCain without appearing too negative himself and alienating groups such as women and independents in Saturday’s vote. Aides to the Texas governor said he planned to dig into McCain’s record on Social Security.

McCain stopped short today of saying he went too far in attacking Bush. The candidate said he stopped running negative ads to break the cycle of charges and countercharges.

”It was a realization that the campaign was spiraling down into something that I would not have been proud of at the end,” he said on NBC’s ”Today.”

A new Los Angeles Times poll found the race between the two Republican presidential contenders to be a statistical dead heat among likely voters. Bush leads McCain by more than 2-to-1 among conservative Republicans, while McCain leads Bush by the same margin among moderate independents and Democrats.

The 90-minute debate, sponsored by the South Carolina Business and Industry Political Education Committee, also includes the third candidate left in the race, radio talk show host Alan Keyes.

The Bush and McCain campaigns tried to strengthen weak spots yesterday.

Bush focused on education as an issue that could appeal to moderates, particularly women. Advisers were fretting over internal polling indicating that Bush’s sharp attacks on McCain may be hurting him with women voters.

McCain began rebroadcasting two TV commercials that tout his conservative credentials, including one that notes his anti-abortion voting record and efforts to take pornography off the Internet.

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