GOP Candidates Beat About the Bush

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The Democratic candidate debate may have been the bland leading the bland, but the GOP's five angry men were somewhat neutered by the absence of the object of their anger. "Perhaps in the future, in a forum like this, if we call it a fund-raiser he may show up," candidate Steve Forbes said cattily of the absence of Governor George W. Bush from Thursday night's Republican candidates' town meeting in New Hampshire. But then, as Senator Orrin Hatch quickly jabbed, Forbes is sufficiently endowed by his family fortune to avoid the trawling for millions among the special interests. Governor Bush's mammoth war chest provided the only hint of combativeness in a field of candidates, most of whom already look like also-rans, but with "Dubya" out of range, they were firing in the air.

Senator McCain, as the acknowledged champion of campaign finance reform, made the most of the night to consolidate his position in second place, hammering the special-interests-control-Washington theme while at the same time burnishing his centrist credentials by affirming his tolerance for pro-choice positions within the GOP and for gay rights. Steve Forbes basked in the fact that his flat tax had become something of a conventional wisdom among Republicans, Gary Bauer tried to claim the Buchanan legacy as the choice of the blue-collar conservative, while Senator Orrin Hatch and Alan Keyes struggled to find signature issues that could register a bump in the polls. In the end, the forum may have worked best for McCain — Bush's war chest was the prevailing concern, and he was clearly identified as its most credible challenger.