George W. Bush took on the role of political chameleon in Tuesday's pre-South Carolina primary debate. We already knew of his attempts to be simultaneously "compassionate" and "conservative," but now Dubya's also selling himself as both an establishment guy and a political outsider-reformer. Bush is in a virtual lock with John McCain for the Republican nod in the Palmetto State and is fighting a two-front war for swing votes against the centrist-appealing McCain and conservative Alan Keyes. After spending weeks there painting himself as a God-fearing, right-to-life conservative, Bush the most contributed-to American candidate ever tried to steal some of John McCain's anti-establishment thunder Tuesday by pushing himself as a campaign finance reformer.
TIME correspondent John Dickerson, who's been following the campaigns in South Carolina and attended Tuesday's CNN-televised debate, said Bush's campaign finance plan didn't make a strong enough impression to woo many centrists from McCain. "It still looks as though it's gonna go down to the wire," says Dickerson, "and the campaign finance reform plan did nothing to change that. People still think of John McCain as the campaign finance reform candidate." Bush's plan calls for a ban on "soft money" contributions by large corporations and labor unions. McCain criticized it for exposing "a $1 billion loophole" by not limiting such contributions from individuals.
Much of the debate was consumed by the leading candidates' continual sparring over which candidate was waging the nastier campaign. Dickerson, though, said that such bickering doesn't seem to count against the candidates in South Carolina. "People here don't seem to care about the negative campaigning so much," he says. "It's something the media pay attention to, but it doesn't seem to have much sway with voters, at least not here."