Iowa Results Define New Hampshire Debates

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George W. Bush spent the evening cautiously counterpunching his way to a points defeat at the hands of McCain; Al Gore and Bill Bradley went at it like welterweights, and while the Democratic challenger was still on his feet by the final bell, his championship prospects appear to have dimmed. Wednesday night's debate doubleheader for the most part appeared to confirm existing trends: Bush maintains his overall lead, although he may well lose a few to McCain along the way; Gore is way out in front of Bradley who, if he can't win in the Granite State's traditional graveyard of anointed favorites, may be unlikely to catch up to Gore anywhere else.

Despite their strong showing in Iowa, Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes found themselves in a kind of social-conservative mosh pit, while Bush and McCain thrashed it out onstage. McCain repeatedly asserted the authority of his military and political experience in a series of calculated put-downs of Governor Bush, challenging him to provide specifics on vague promises of tax cuts and military spending reduction. Both men affirmed anti-abortion positions, but refused to be goaded into hard-line positions by the social conservatives. Bush was, however, stung by Forbes' unflattering characterization of his achievements as Texas governor.

The Democratic debate was reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch in which Israelites squabble about who has a better record of hatred for the Romans. Being in broad agreement on most policy issues, each was trying to make the other look dishonest and inconsistent. And it was Gore, all aggressive trash-talking and sharp-elbowed rebounding, who looked more like a New York Knick. Squabbling over voting records and health plans denied Bradley the space to dunk over Gore, which he badly needed to do if he was going to reel in the vice president's lead. Where Bush had done his best to look presidential and hold himself above the fray, Gore didn't have to. He'll get plenty of opportunity to look statesmanlike Thursday night behind President Clinton during the State of the Union address. The administration's record is the centerpiece of Gore's campaign, and that record has no finer salesman than President Clinton during his annual policy address. Gore simply has to show up and reap the dividend.