Why is Texas Gov. George W. Bush trashing John McCain's tax plan, and then mentioning him as a possible running mate? Because he respects McCain's appeal, and knows that whoever wins or loses in New Hampshire on Feb. 1, McCain has struck a nerve.
During an event in Merrimack, New Hampshire, on Tuesday, a woman asked Bush who he'd consider for a running mate. "John McCain is a man I respect, and I like him, and we're friends ... We're going to disagree over taxes and leaving money in Washington, but we'll be friends. He's a good man," Bush said.
So eager is Bush to stay on McCain's good side that he went on to note, "It would be insulting to him in the middle of this campaign for me to mention him in the context of the vice presidency, because he's very much alive in the presidential race."
No kidding. A new CBS News poll shows 39 percent of New Hampshire Republicans plan to vote for McCain, while 33 percent opt for Bush. That may be due in part to McCain's strategy of ignoring Iowa and concentrating on New Hampshire.
On the other hand, 58 percent of those polled say they could still change their mind, so Bush is fighting. His weapon of choice is taxes.
He's got a new ad out Tuesday which insists "the people of New Hampshire understand that you deserve your money back and that cutting taxes keep the economy growing."
That's his response to the criticisms McCain has leveled against Bush's whopping $783 billion tax cut, which the Arizona senator denounces as impractical, imprudent and beneficial to the wealthy. Bush says McCain's more modest tax cut, which sets aside a substantial sum of money for Social Security, is much too small and may even cost some folks more money.
McCain turned the tax tables on Bush at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Nashua, New Hampshire. He pledged never to tax Internet sales and, of course, challenged his rivals (read: rival) to do the same. "We should not harm this baby in the cradle," McCain said.
Bush wants to keep the current system in place, which allows state taxes on Internet sales, but puts a hold on new taxes or taxes for access. As far as the Internet goes, Bush shows the kind of caution for which he lambastes McCain.
The bickering over tax plans is hardly a waste of time in New Hampshire. Taxes are the number one issue among Granite State Republicans, according to the new CBS News poll. But when asked what they want to do with the budget surplus, 65 percent of Republicans say they want that money to be used for Social Security, while only 27 percent want the money back as a tax cut.
That's the message McCain is pushing, and Bush knows it's going over. Bush also respects McCain's ability to persuade voters he's the real thing. Voters think McCain is a straight shooter, who doesn't simply say what they want to hear.
In paying homage to McCain, perhaps Bush is saying what voters want to hear, but perhaps that's not bad approach when you're trailing in the polls.
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