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Bush endures slaps from GOP rivals in fully attended candidate forum

By Randy Lilleston and Ian Christopher McCaleb

December 3, 1999
Web posted at: 12:14 a.m. EST (0514 GMT)

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (CNN) -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush found himself on the receiving end of a variety of figurative slaps Thursday night in the first fully attended Republican presidential candidate forum, but he and his five party rivals managed to maintain a largely civil exchange.

The 90-minute forum, televised throughout the first-primary state of New Hampshire from the studios of Manchester television station WMUR, marked the first time Bush has appeared in a presidential face-to-face question-and-answer forum with his rivals. The other five candidates already have participated in several debates and public forums.

Bush was taken to task for his stance on the preservation of the Social Security system, and for his five-year, $483 billion tax cut proposal, unveiled on Wednesday.

Magazine publisher Steve Forbes, the man many expected to set his sights on Bush early, accused Bush of scheming to raise the age of eligibility for full Social Security benefits, after Bush told a morning talk show last Sunday that such a move would be one of many he would consider to keep the social aid system solvent.

"What are you going to raise the retirement age to?" Forbes asked. "It's already been raised to 67. This consideration is a form of betrayal. 'Consideration' is code for 'we're going to do it.'"

Bush countered that he had only mentioned consideration of a hike in the national retirement age. "I'm going to Washington to save and strengthen Social Security," Bush said, before pounding Forbes with a quote of his in own, in which Forbes advocated raising the national retirement age to 67 or 68.

"That quote was written 20 some-odd years ago, when the system was in crisis," a surprised Forbes responded, adding that his latest proposal to allow the vast majority of Americans to invest a portion of their Social Security benefits would eliminate the need for any changes in the recommended retirement age.

He joked about the old quote after the forum, using the now politically popular phrase "youthful indiscretion" to describe his column-writing decisions at the time.

Forbes later accosted Bush on his tax plan, saying the cuts proposed by Bush were "small, inadequate, and leave the (Internal Revenue Service) in place." Forbes advocates a national flat tax of some 17 percent annually.

"Don't phase in the cuts over five years," Forbes said. "Help people now."

A majority of the other candidates joined Forbes in criticizing the Bush tax plan, and the current revenue collection system. Hatch recommended the "terrible" tax code be rewritten top to bottom, while Alan Keyes -- easily the most animated of the six speakers Thursday -- called for a return to the early American system of revenue collection.

"We need to get rid of the 16th amendment, and return to the original system that funds government with a variety of tariffs and duties," Keyes said. Of the Bush plan, Keyes intimated that the current tax process makes slaves of American workers who pay into government coffers with every paycheck.

"We are supposed to thank Massah Bush because he is going to give us some (money) back," Keyes said.

For his part, Bush seemed satisfied with the varied criticism, saying, "For some it's not enough, some too big. That leads me to believe I'm doing something right."

The forum covered a variety of topics, ranging from military readiness and a possible U.S. response to a theoretical Chinese missile attack on Taiwan, to regulation of the Internet and how to deal with Microsoft's advantage in the high-tech marketplace.

Bush faced his first attack of the night when conservative Christian activist Gary Bauer said Bush needed to clarify his stance on abortion.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) even criticized the Texas governor for the quality of his campaign Web site, saying it was "not user-friendly."

Nonetheless, Bush did not have to endure the sort of fierce, multi-participant attacks that many observers predicted awaited him. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain -- in a tight battle in the state according to current polls -- exchanged pleasantries during the debate, with McCain commenting on Bush's attractiveness as a candidate, and Bush, in a moment of candor, describing McCain as "a good man."

The Arizona senator occasionally had his own attack lines to fend off, although most of them came from moderators Karen Brown of WMUR and Brit Hume of Fox News, which carried the forum nationwide. McCain was repeatedly asked about concerns over his temper -- questions he tried to joke away, uncomfortably at times.

But he also may have had the most humorous comment of the night. After Forbes suggested that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan should be taken to task -- and perhaps not reappointed -- for raising interest rates when the economy was expanded, McCain had a response ready.

"I would not only reappoint Mr. Greenspan -- if Mr. Greenspan should happen to die, God forbid -- I would do like was did in the movie, 'Weekend at Bernie's.' I'd prop him up and put a pair of dark glasses on him and keep him as long as we could," McCain said.

While most of the other GOP candidates campaigned actively this week, Bush spent much of his time in debate preparations. He fended off moderators' questions on foreign policy and economic issues by touting his record as governor of Texas, "the second-largest state in the union."

"If Texas were a nation, it would have the 11th largest economy in the world," Bush said. "The people (of Texas) appreciate the fact that I know how to lead."

He repeated those comments again and again throughout the night. "I guess we learned that about him," Forbes joked afterward of Bush's refrains.

Thursday night's unusual rules allowed two moderators to question the candidates in turn. Each candidate was then given a minute to reply and 45 seconds to answer a followup. The White House hopefuls were also allowed a minute and 45 seconds apiece to make closing statements.

The candidates stood at podiums through the event, which featured no studio audience, in contrast to earlier forums where the candidates sat and took questions from the public.

Although the studio where the forum took place was quiet, hundreds of supporters of the candidates waited outside the TV station. When McCain's bus pulled up to the studio Thursday night, he was greeted by a roar from supporters chanting his name. He walked across the street to his supporters, who patted him on the back and mobbed him as if he were a football player who had gone into the stands after a touchdown.

Supporters for several candidates marched through downtown Manchester throughout the day, with Bush supporters staging a large march about an hour before the forum. And, a pair of Forbes buses blasted music from a parking lot across the street from the television studio.

Forbes will receive a boost on Friday morning in the form of the endorsement of Manchester's staunchly conservative Union Leader newspaper.

Of the publisher, the newspaper writes, "Steve Forbes is not charismatic. (Some would say he looks like a geek.) But he's also not a phony. Ask him a question, you'll get a thoughtful answer, not a soundbite."

On Bush, the paper is not so effusive. "Bush is a nice guy but an empty suit with no philosophical underpinning," the newspaper said.

The debate seemed to drag at times, with moderators adding extra rounds of questions to fill the hour-and-a-half time slot. But occasional frank and even off-beat responses were offered.

Keyes accused the news media of outright racism in refusing to give him more coverage. "You want to continue the blackout, which means, 'keep the black out,'" Keyes said.

Bush was quizzed on his choice of reading material (he listed several Texas and national newspapers and books). McCain criticized congressional intervention in military purchases by saying, "We're going to have a C-130 (cargo plane) in every schoolyard in America," and Hatch wrapped up the debate by suggesting the candidates load themselves onto a bus for a week in January and tour Iowa and New Hampshire, holding debates along the way.

After the forum, each candidate's supporters and staff tried to portray the event in the best light. "Governor Bush showed he was a leader," spokeswoman Karen Hughes said. Hughes went after Forbes, saying he could not be judged on his record "because he has never held elective office," and said the Bush campaign had "absolutely not" insisted on the forum format -- and in fact, did not like it.

"We need open debates," Forbes said afterward, calling for candidates to have greater chances to question one another.

Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, a McCain supporter, said the focus on McCain's temper "was kind of unfair, but it's a free world and people get to ask the questions they want."

And if McCain wins New Hampshire, "all bets are off" about a Bush nomination, Thompson said. "I think he's on his way."


ELECTION 2000

GOP presidential candidates debate without Bush -- again (11-22-99)

Buchanan proposes talks with Iran, Iraq (11-22-99)

Des Moines Register: Bauer says polls mean nothing (11-22-99)

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