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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Analysis: The GOP debate

The words were familiar but the line-up wasn't

By Stuart Rothenberg

December 3, 1999
Web posted at: 6:17 p.m. EST (2317 GMT)

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire -- Arizona Sen. John McCain stressed his reform agenda and willingness to take on the "special interests." Publisher Steve Forbes emphasized that he isn't a typical Washington politician and favors lower taxes. Conservatives Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes reminded viewers about society's moral fabric. And Texas Gov. George W. Bush emphasized his accomplishments and leadership in Texas.

But the focus of the debate was the participation of Bush, who had skipped previous Republican joint appearances and seen his lead in New Hampshire evaporate.

Bush needed to show viewers that he could hold his own on the same stage with his opponents, and he surely passed that test. Generally poised and confident, he didn't make the big mistake that could have confirmed fears about whether he is prepare to be president.

Critics may well complain that Bush didn't show great depth and merely regurgitated platitudes about his ability to lead, his desire to bring people together, and his successes in Texas. But he never seemed rattled, unprepared or unpresidential.

Bush probably didn't convince many voters that he was an intellectual heavyweight, but he didn't seem out of his league either.

The governor's tax cut proposal was a center of attention, drawing criticism from Forbes, Bauer, Keyes and even Hatch. When asked about that proposal, Bush gave a crisp and confident answer. He noted that his tax cut proposal has been attacked for being both too large and too small.

Forbes, who was just endorsed by the conservative Manchester Union Leader, directed a handful of barbs at the Texan, calling the governor's tax proposal "timid" and complaining that Bush was doing nothing to eliminate the Internal Revenue Service. He repeatedly compared his views to Bush's, much as Bauer compared his positions to Forbes'.

But the format - with two television journalists asking questions and follow-ups of the candidates - wasn't conducive to a slugfest, since candidates couldn't ask questions of each other. The result was a generally tame debate, without surprises.

McCain's performance clearly was impressive. At various moments in the debate, he showed humor, substance and seriousness, always respectful to the other participants and always returning to his message that he would take on Washington's special interests if elected. He used humor to deflect questions about his temper and lack of support on Capitol Hill, but spoke passionately about foreign policy, government spending and his desire to restore confidence in government.

Bauer was, as usual, articulate, but it isn't clear that he has found a way to overtake Forbes as the conservative alternative to Bush and McCain.

Did the debate change the outlines of the GOP presidential race? Probably not. Bush did what he had to, and he remains the front-runner. But he will have to prove himself again and again between now and the Iowa caucuses, and journalists and voters are likely to watch his performances in upcoming debates in Arizona and Iowa as they look to see whether he makes any mistakes and gives critics more ammunition.

McCain's appealing performance solidifies his standing as an alternative to Bush. Forbes is likely to continue his attacks on the governor's agenda, as he tries to peel off conservatives away from the Texan.

Both McCain and Forbes emphasized their dissatisfaction with the status-quo, a clear comparison to Bush, who has the support of the GOP establishment. But with the economy strong and polls showing voters generally content, McCain and Forbes may not find enough Republican anger and fear to overtake the front-runner.

This was Bush's first test. He passed it comfortably.


MESSAGE BOARD

GOP presidential primary



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Friday, December 3, 1999

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