George Dubya Takes Off the Gloves

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What, you mean I actually have to campaign? That seemed to be the general refrain from the George W. Bush camp on Thursday, when he agreed to join a debate of Republican presidential hopefuls in Iowa December 13. Bush was conspicuous in his absence from a five-way Republican candidates' debate in New Hampshire on October 28 that resembled a WWF slugfest until all the combatants agreed to criticize Bush for sitting on his cushy lead and forgoing the traditional campaign process. When the dust settled, Sen. John McCain had not only gained serious ground on Bush in New Hampshire, but polls showed him gaining on Bush throughout the country. The Bush crowd previously said he wouldn't do any debating until January, but says TIME Washington corresponded James Carney, "they realized they're getting a bad reputation for seeming aloof from the process, so it's probably time they get back into it before they alienate too many voters."

The debate may also give the Texas governor a chance to catch McCain off-guard. The only other entrant so far in the Iowa debate is the perennially shameless and camera-awkward Steve Forbes, while McCain has yet to announce whether he'll enter the debate. He hasn't done any campaigning in Iowa and said he would only engage in one debate there, in January. The December appearance could provide Bush the opportunity to give the people what they want and catch McCain flat-footed. But he'll also have to do something he wanted to avoid — square off with the party's right-hugging contingent, represented by candidates Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes, who could force Bush to defend himself to conservatives, possibly at the expense of some centrist swing votes. But then again, isn't that what the campaign cycle is for?