Log Rolling?

Is George W. Bush gearing up to play the gay card against John McCain in South Carolina? Political pundits were genuinely perplexed on November 21 when Governor Bush told Tim Russert on Meet the Press that he would "probably not" meet with the Log Cabin Republicans, the gay Republican group that John McCain had met with only a couple weeks earlier.

Bush explained his reasoning like this:

Well, because it creates a huge political scene, I mean, that this is all--I am someone who is a uniter, not a divider. I don't believe in group thought, pitting one group of people against another. And all that does is create kind of a huge political, you know, nightmare for people. I mean, it's as if an individual doesn't count, but the group that the individual belongs in is more important.

Huh? Anyway, given all his campaign's talk about compassion and inclusion, it's hard to figure out why Bush would be so skittish about even meeting with Log Cabin Republicans. Maybe because some of his own advisers had told him that using the meeting as a wedge issue against McCain might just be too good an opportunity to pass up--especially if Bush stumbles in New Hampshire.

Weekly Standard publisher Bill Kristol was the first to publicly connect Bush's answer on Meet the Press to his campaign's attempts to use McCain's meeting with Log Cabin Republicans against him. Kristol first mentioned it on ABC's This Week and later on yet another of Tim Russert's shows on CNBC. "If McCain wins New Hampshire," Kristol quoted Bush strategist Ralph Reed as telling him, "Pat Robertson will come out for Bush in South Carolina ... and not only will he come out for Bush, he'll go negative on McCain on campaign finance reform." (Reed told me he said only that McCain's support for campaign finance reform might hurt him with the state's evangelical Christians.) But then Kristol went further. Now relying on unnamed sources, Kristol said he believed the Bush campaign was already trying to curry favor with South Carolina conservatives by getting out the word about McCain's meeting with Log Cabin Republicans.

Whispering campaigns are difficult to track down. But it's easy to see why people are suspicious. Roughly a week after McCain's meeting with the Log Cabin Republicans on November 9, a series of anonymous letters appeared in the mailboxes of 23 South Carolina state representatives who have endorsed McCain and an undetermined number of other Republican activists around the state. The envelopes contained a photocopy of a November 10 Washington Times article describing McCain's meeting with Log Cabin Republicans, with an introduction that read: "Log Cabin Republicans said yesterday that Arizona Sen. John McCain is going after the homosexual Republican vote as no other serious presidential nomination contender has in his party in recent memory." Little typed notes clipped to the article read, "So this is the candidate you're supporting? Hmmmm?"

Roughly a week later Bush told Russert he "probably" wouldn't meet with Log Cabin Republicans.

So who sent the letters? Warren Tompkins, one of Bush's top strategists in South Carolina, couldn't quite bring himself to deny that the Bush folks might be holding the Log Cabin issue in reserve, but he denied knowing anything about the letters.

Much of the suspicion has fallen on Ralph Reed, in part because he has a history of doing this sort of thing. Back in 1996 Reed was the one who helped save Bob Dole in Iowa by orchestrating a campaign of so-called "push-polls" attacking rival candidate Steve Forbes for, among other things, tolerating his father's "alternative lifestyle." But when I spoke to Reed, he denied that he, or any-one working for him, had any role in the mailing.

Normally, campaign workers are more than happy to spill the beans on their opponents' dirty tricks. But McCain's South Carolina staff appears understandably perplexed about how to proceed. McCain's National Field Director Trey Walker put me in touch with three McCain supporters, who are members of the South Carolina state house, and who've received the anonymous letters. But when I asked Walker what he thought of the whole situation, he said, "We're not worried about it an inordinate amount." In other words, as much as the McCain folks might want to embarrass Bush, they don't want their South Carolina campaign turning on anything to do with gay rights. The McCain campaign wants South Carolina's veteran-rich electorate to warm to their candidate because he spent five years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, not because he spent a half-hour holed up in his office with a gay rights group.

The oddest twist to this story is that the Log Cabin Republicans themselves seem similarly inclined to keep the whole matter under wraps. As stung as they are by Bush's public snub, the last thing they want is to make hay about it publicly. They would clearly like nothing better than to welcome Bush back into the fold if he'd only make the slightest hint of shifting course and agree to some sort of meeting. Contrary to Bush's explanation on Meet the Press, it's hard to imagine any group going more out of its way to make it easy for a candidate to settle an awkward situation.

Ever since Bush made his comment on Meet the Press, folks around his campaign have been trying to keep the Log Cabin people on the line by plying them with suggestions that the governor was actually unhappy with his statement and would be looking for a venue to shift his stance on the issue, perhaps in one of the GOP debates. To date, of course, that hasn't happened.

For the record, Bush spokesman Scott McLellan assured me that the Bush campaign was "not involved" in sending out the anonymous letters. But if the Bush people were really intent on making clear that they have no hand in any McCain-Log Cabin whispering campaign, the easiest thing to do would be to arrange a meeting and put the matter to rest once and for all. So might Bush agree to a meeting just to clear things up? No, says McLellan. Why not? Because the Log Cabin Republicans are the "kind of group that is just interested in politicizing the issue."