WASHINGTON _ With the Republican presidential campaign headed to a crucial sprint, John McCain plans to sharpen his assault on religious conservatives linked to rival George W. Bush, suggesting they are no better than "union bosses" seeking to perpetuate their power.
McCain was headed to Virginia Beach, Va., home of televangelist Pat Robertson, where aides said he planned a stinging critique of Robertson and his ties to the Texas governor.
Aides said the Arizona senator would make the case that, in defending Bush and attacking McCain, Robertson was putting personal political ambition ahead of conservative causes.
"The union bosses who have subordinated the interests of working families to their own ambitions _ to their desire to preserve their own political power at all costs _ are mirror images of Pat Robertson," said an early draft of McCain's remarks, provided to The Associated Press.
In his speech, McCain offers GOP leaders a blunt choice, declaring: "I don't believe it's logical to suggest the Republican establishment is more important than to save the Republican majority."
McCain aides compared the attack to a 1992 move by President Clinton criticizing rap singer Sister Souljah, a move where Clinton cast himself as a moderate.
Word of the speech came as McCain and Bush squabbled over campaign debates, while Bush was on the defensive about his relations with Roman Catholics.
In a letter to the leader of New York's Catholics, Gov. George W. Bush said he "deeply" regretted "causing needless offense" by making a campaign appearance at a South Carolina school with anti-Catholic views.
Bush has come under steady criticism for his Feb. 2 visit to Bob Jones University, a Christian school whose leaders have criticized the Pope and labeled the Catholic church a "Satanic cult."
Opponents, including John McCain, his rival for the GOP presidential nomination, have assailed Bush for not denouncing the school's views and its ban on interracial dating and instead using his appearance to speak about his conservatism.
In a Feb. 25 letter to Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, leader of the archdiocese's 2.4 million Roman Catholics, Bush stated his "profound respect" for the Catholic Church and said the criticism of him is unfair and unfounded.
"On reflection, I should have been more clear in disassociating myself from anti-Catholic sentiments and racial prejudice," Bush said in the letter, which his campaign released Sunday. "It was a missed opportunity causing needless offense, which I deeply regret."
The letter marked an abrupt reversal for Bush, who only last week said: "I don't make any apologies for what I do in the campaign."
A high-profile showdown in California seemed threatened when McCain said he wouldn't appear at Thursday's scheduled debate in Los Angeles. His aides said Bush dallied in committing to the event, which caused scheduling problems.
Bush hotly denied that, and McCain might lose a big platform he needs in a state crucial to his hopes.
The debate, sponsored by CNN and the Los Angeles Times, comes just days before that giant state's primary March 7. Bush demanded an explanation.
"He's going to have to explain why he's not going to this debate," said Bush, who blamed McCain for pulling out of the debate. "I was led to believe earlier this week that everybody had accepted."
"We're not going to let George Bush dictate our schedule," countered McCain spokesman Todd Harris.
Senior McCain aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, dismissed any suggestions that the senator was easing his commitment to California.
McCain has scheduled six campaign days in the state before the primary, and is running $3 million in television commercials in the state, the aides said. Officials are considering adding another day to that effort.
The California situation is the opposite from earlier in the campaign, when McCain repeatedly attacked Bush for ducking debates.
Some aides warned that McCain's upcoming trip to California, which ends hours before the debate, will be dominated by questions about skipping the event, and that it would give Bush an excuse to duck future face-offs.
McCain's aides said Bush had initially turned down the California debate, then changed his mind only after McCain had assembled an intense campaign schedule in New York.
Bush was having none of McCain's explanation.
"This is a very important primary state and a state that's going to have a lot to say about who the next president is," he said.
McCain did not address the issue in public appearances Sunday, but Harris dismissed Bush's sudden focus on campaign debates. "They lose a couple of primaries and all of a sudden they're born-again debaters," he said.
Earlier Sunday, Bush was on the defensive about a visit he paid to Bob Jones University in South Carolina before that state's primary.
In a letter to Cardinal John O'Connor, leader of New York's 2.4 million Catholics, Bush said he should have been "more clear" in his speech "in disassociating myself from anti-Catholic sentiments and racial prejudice. It was a missed opportunity, causing needless offense, which I deeply regret.
Critics have argued that the school takes harshly anti-Catholic views, and bans interracial dating, and they have attacked Bush for not speaking out against those practices during his appearance at the school.
In his letter, which his campaign released, Bush stated his "profound respect" for the Roman Catholic Church and said the criticism of him is unfair and unfounded.