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Bush absence conspicuous at debate

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

HANOVER, N.H. – Next time, Gov. George W. Bush’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination will debate against him instead of about him.

”I’m sure Gov. Bush will be very active in this campaign, particularly since we’re moving up so rapidly in the polls,” said Sen. John McCain, who trails Bush but is gaining.

McCain said he’d have preferred to have Bush participate in the forum at Dartmouth College last night because New Hampshire voters deserved it.

The Arizona senator, publisher Steve Forbes, conservative activist Gary Bauer, commentator Alan Keys and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah went ahead without Bush, meeting for the second time in a week in a 60-minute question-and-answer format.

They sparred at times, but it was no slugfest as they stated their positions on taxes, abortion and assorted other issues, without much argument. It was not direct debate. They got questions in turn, 90 seconds to answer, no rebuttal time.

In the New Hampshire polls, McCain trails Bush by 12 to 16 points. The others are far behind, registering in single digits. McCain said he does not discount them, recalling that he was down there, too, not long ago.

But he says he is gaining traction, and he sought to add to it last night by sticking to his message of reform, a point he made on almost every question put to him. He said patients’ medical rights, school voucher funding, money to meet the needs of military families, and his standard, political finances, are all in need of reform that can’t happen until the power of special interest money is curbed.

Forbes took the hardest shot of the night at Bush for his absence.

”Perhaps in the future, at a forum like this, if we call it a fundraiser he might show up,” said the magazine heir, who is financing his own campaign.

Bush already has said he will come to the Republicans’ debate in Manchester, N.H., on Dec. 2. And the absentee got a solo interview on WMUR-TV, a local station, two hours before the hourlong debate it co-sponsored with CNN.

He said he regretted missing it, but preferred to be at a ceremony honoring his wife, Laura, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. ”I’m sorry I’m not there, I look forward to the debates, I’ve got a lot to say,” Bush said.

”I know I’ve got a lot of work to do, I take nothing for granted,” he said.

Only a front-runner would get that TV treatment. But it also showed that Bush is wary of the absentee argument against him. His campaign issued statements explaining his absence. He had planned to stay out of debates until January.

Bauer did take a slap at Forbes on another point, saying that his proposed flat tax would favor corporations over families. ”Gary, you’re wrong,” Forbes countered.

McCain urged Republican openness to differences on the abortion issue, repeating that he is firmly opposed to the practice. None of the more conservative candidates challenged him on it.

”We can have respectful disagreements on specific issues, and we can work together on this one,” he said of the party’s most divisive social policy dispute.

Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, the Democratic candidates, met in their first question-and-answer debate Wednesday night. When the moderator at the GOP forum asked who in that crowd had watched the Democrats, McCain’s hand was one of those that went up.

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