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GOP hopefuls swap jabs, jokes

The debate between the six presidential candidates was quite spirited Thursday night.

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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 7, 2000

DURHAM, N.H. -- It was the kind of free-wheeling debate families have around their kitchen tables.

The six Republican presidential candidates spent an hour Thursday night in an animated, often humorous and never dull debate over issues ranging from tax cuts to campaign finance to gays in the military.

They jabbed.

Social conservative Gary Bauer questioned whether front-runner George W. Bush strongly reflects the values of socially conservative Republicans on issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Publisher Steve Forbes called Bush's tax plan "Clinton-Gore Lite."

They defended.

Bush promoted his proposed tax cuts. Arizona Sen. John McCain expressed no remorse over writing a letter on behalf of a campaign contributor to the Federal Communications Commission.

And they provided plenty of light moments in a debate that revealed more of the candidates' personalities than details of their policy proposals.

Sometimes the humor was intentional.

In the midst of asking Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah a question about the Cuban boy on the verge of being sent back from Miami to the island, McCain mugged for the camera and declared, "That's not my question," and changed the subject to Internet taxation.

Sometimes the light moments were intended to be serious.

Radio talk show host Alan Keyes berated McCain for once joking that Nine Inch Nails is his favorite musical group, arguing that the group's lyrics and image are a bad influence on children.

McCain responded like a contestant on the ABC game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

"Can I get a lifeline?" he asked.

After explaining he had just taken his 15-year-old daughter to the MTV music awards show, he said, "I was trying to be amusing and entertaining, and it was a poor choice."

"I'm a father," Keyes shot back, "and I'm not laughing, I'm really not."

McCain retorted with a grin: "I haven't been able to entertain you in the past."

The debate at the University of New Hampshire was the first of three over five days. The Republican candidates are together again at 8 tonight in South Carolina in a debate that will be carried live by MSNBC and National Public Radio. There is another Republican debate Monday in Michigan.

Bush, who appeared more relaxed and confident Thursday night than in some earlier debates, was unruffled as he defended his proposed tax cuts of $483-billion over 10 years. Moderator Tim Russert of NBC pressed Bush to envision when he might back off tax cuts or raise taxes, such as during a recession.

"This is not only no new taxes. This is tax cuts, so help me God," Bush said.

The answer was reminiscent of a declaration by Bush's father. Former President George Bush said at the 1988 Republican Convention: "Read my lips. No new taxes."

But President Bush eventually raised taxes, and breaking the pledge contributed to his loss to Bill Clinton in 1992.

What about raising taxes during a war, Russert asked Bush.

"If you are talking about the extremes of extreme hypotheticals, which you sometimes have a tendency to do . . . we'll see what happens," Bush replied.

Russert also asked Bush why he named Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher in an earlier debate. Bush said it reflected his personal values. He deflected another question about whether he would follow the popular "What would Jesus do?" expression when pondering questions as president.

"I would take an expression into the Oval Office: "Dear God, help me,' " Bush joked.

Bauer: "So would we, Governor."

Bush, laughing: "That wasn't very Christian of you."

As for Bauer's criticisms on social issues, Bush noted that he opposes gay marriage, signed into Texas law a parental consent provision on abortions for minors, backed tax cuts and promoted school choice. The Texas governor continued to stress his experience as a chief executive.

"I've got a record people can come down and analyze," Bush said.

Bush and McCain also continued to spar over the Arizona senator's proposal to ban soft money, the unlimited political contributions that flow into political parties. Bush contends that would harm the Republican Party.

"What you're saying is we should continue what happened in 1996," McCain said, referring to fundraising excesses by the Democrats. "That's disgraceful."

But Bush did not back down.

"I trust your integrity. I trust your judgment," Bush told McCain. "I don't trust the plan you are outlining."

At campaign stops earlier in the day, Bush said McCain had questions to answer about the letter he wrote the FCC on behalf of Paxson Communications, which is based in West Palm Beach. McCain wrote the letter in December to demand action on an issue Paxson needed resolved in order to buy a Pittsburgh television station.

Questioned by Russert, McCain defended the letter. He said all taxpayers deserve prompt answers from government agencies and that the FCC is notoriously slow in responding.

"I would do the same thing again at almost any time," McCain said.

The Republicans spent a significant portion of the hour talking about whether they would have litmus tests for joint chiefs of staff on military policy toward gays.

Bush said he favored continuing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that the Clinton administration wants to overhaul. McCain, a career Navy officer and former prisoner of war, said he also would stick with current rules unless military leaders recommended changing them.

But Bauer and Keyes indicated they would ban gays from military service.

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