Call This a Debate? GOP Hopefuls Have a Love-In

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No, really, George, call me Steve.... During their first real debate Monday night in Phoenix, the GOP presidential hopefuls came across like salesmen at a convention competing for their boss's attention but avoiding any overt aggression. In broad agreement on issues of taxes and foreign policy, they even kept their criticisms of one another plausibly constructive, and that left the audience once again to make their choice on the basis of style.

George W. Bush, more at ease than at last week's forum in New Hampshire, still relied heavily on recycled passages from his stump speech, and he flunked another of those SATs journalists seem to have taken it upon themselves to give him: Asked what he had learned from a biography of former secretary of state Dean Acheson, which he said last week he was reading, Bush offered "that our nation's greatest export to the world has been, is and always will be the incredible freedoms we understand in the great land called America," and other generalities from his stump speech, but said nothing about Acheson. John McCain took the opportunity to jump in with a supposedly knowledgeable comment about Acheson, but more important, the senator came across as easily the more comfortable in dealing with questions.

With McCain and Bush running neck-and-neck in the Arizona polls, it was left to the other four candidates to divide the also-ran spoils — Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes by trumpeting their conservative credentials, and Orrin Hatch by emphasizing his experience. Clearly, though, some pollster has told all the Republican hopefuls that congeniality is the flavor of the month, and their affability was at times almost comical — Forbes told Bush to call him "Steve," McCain told the Texas governor to call him "John," then later complained of not knowing whether to call Bush "George" or "W." Please guys, no hugging, OK?