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Let’s focus on issues, not attacks, McCain says

The Associated Press

• A confident Bush calls his rival’s education plan ‘vague.’

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES – Warming up for tonight’s debate, John McCain vowed to get past discord over religion and turn to issues. Picking one such issue, George W. Bush needled him for not having much of an education plan.

McCain faced criticism yesterday from social conservative Gary Bauer, who had endorsed him shortly after ending his own Republican presidential candidacy.

Bauer said McCain should apologize for an ”ill-advised and divisive” speech that compared religious right leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell to leftist activists Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton.

But Falwell weighed in with charitable words on McCain’s behalf.

”I personally think that the senator in a moment of frustration said things that he normally would not say,” Falwell told Roanoke, Va., TV station WSLS. ”And it’s out of character for him to be that way.”

Falwell said McCain got bad campaign advice. ”I don’t believe John McCain is a bigot or hates Christians or hates anybody,” Falwell said.

An increasingly confident Bush predicted yet another round of victories and worked to create a sense of inevitability.

”When I’m the nominee, I’m going to set the tone for the party,” said Bush. ”That’s what a leader does.”

McCain dismissed predictions of almost any sort in this wild and woolly primary campaign – including his own.

”Every prediction so far has been wrong, including mine,” he said. ”My predictions are not totally worthless, but next to it.”

But he conceded his campaign got sidetracked in recent days and said it’s time to get back to issues.

”I’m going to focus on that rather than respond to continued assaults on my character,” he said. ”The people of this country deserve a campaign that’s based on the issues.”

Bush previewed a new line, attacking McCain for being vague on education.

”It’s not going to take you long to hear his (plan),” Bush said at a Missouri rally. ”There’s not much to my opponent’s – with all due respect.”

Bush has a detailed plan to use federal education aid to reward and penalize states according to how students perform on standardized tests, including a national sampling exam.

He hasn’t been too keen lately to emphasize the strong federal role in his plan, insisting he’s for local control of schools. McCain’s education platform is not so involved – it stresses ”no strings” money to schools.

The candidates were preparing for their final debate before Super Tuesday, when voters in 13 states choose Republican delegates. California is the largest prize.

Bush and Alan Keyes will be in Los Angeles for the debate while McCain plans to appear via satellite from St. Louis.

”We are closing by about a point or two a day here in California,” McCain said of polls. Bush pointed to his sweep this week in Virginia, North Dakota and Washington state as ”a sign of what’s going to happen in California next week.”

McCain struggled with fallout from his Virginia Beach speech attacking Robertson and Falwell as ”agents of intolerance.” He’s been hoping that speech, delivered near the home of the Christian Coalition, will serve him well among moderate Republicans in less conservative states.

”I stand by the speech,” McCain said. ”I did not and will not retract anything I said in that speech.”

PHOTO CAPTION: The Associated Press

Sen. John McCain salutes a former South Vietnamese soldier and POW at a rally yesterday in Little Saigon in Westminster, Calif. The Asian community greeted McCain with cheers.

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