As Super Tuesday's primaries approach, the GOP candidates are squaring off over their views on the role of religious conservatives in their campaigns and their party. John McCain stepped up his attacks on religious conservatives with a Monday speech in Virginia Beach, Va., home of religious right leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, the Associated Press reported. Calling the Christian conservative leaders "agents of intolerance," McCain warned his party against "pandering to the outer reaches of American politics," on the eve of Tuesday's primary in the state. In the days before last week's Michigan primary, which George W. Bush lost, Robertson made automated phone calls to voters, accusing a top McCain advisor of being "a vicious bigot" who was hostile to conservative Christians. Bush campaign spokesman Karl Rove has made rounds to the major television news shows lambasting the Arizona senator's tactics and accusing him of focusing too much on these religious issues. Late Monday, Bush released a brief statement in response to McCain's remarks in Virginia. "You can't lead America to a better tomorrow by calling people names and by pointing fingers," he said,"Ronald Reagan didn't point fingers. He never played to people's religious fears like Senator McCain has shamelessly done, ascribing views to me that I don't hold." Monday's drama came on the heels of a letter from Bush to New York's Cardinal John O'Connor, expressing "regret" Sunday over his controversial South Carolina visit to Bob Jones University (BJU), a fundamentalist Christian school that bans interracial dating on campus and has anti-Catholic leanings.
Since his Feb. 2 visit to the South Carolina school, Bush has been steadily criticized for being unduly influenced by GOP religious conservatives. Sunday's letter was a complete reversal of his earlier refusal to apologize for the visit to BJU. It was also an attempt to rescue the Catholic vote, which some say cost him the Michigan primary, in time for the upcoming primary in New York, which has a significant Catholic population. "On reflection, I should have been more clear in disassociating myself from anti-Catholic sentiments and racial prejudice," Bush wrote, "It was a missed opportunity, causing needless offense, which I deeply regret." "As a Christian, I see Catholics as my brothers and sisters in Christ--sharing the same ancient creed and core beliefs," the letter also said. For its part, BJU struck back on Monday, with a strongly-worded statement lamenting the fact that "Bob Jones University has been placed by the media and certain candidates at the center of the Republican presidential primary debate." Citing freedom of religion and the fact that BJU does not have tax-exempt status, the statement says of the interracial dating issue: "Racism and hatred are not part of our institutional character." On the Catholicism charge, the statement says, "Absolutely not!" to the accusation that the school's teaching, which is "at odds with papal edict," is hateful to Catholics. The school also accused John McCain, Bush's main rival for the Republican presidential nomination, and Democratic hopefuls Al Gore and Bill Bradley of using Bush's visit for their own political gain. "How do you explain the sudden hatred and bigotry the University is subjected to by the media and the political 'three tenors,' McCain, Gore, and Bradley, who sing the same off-pitch tune of the liberal left?", the statement said.
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