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No breakthroughs, or front-runner

©Associated Press

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 1999

HANOVER, N.H. -- Republican presidential hopefuls discussed abortion, health care and taxes Thursday night in a generally polite campaign debate spiced by jabs directed by Steve Forbes and Gary Bauer at the absent front-runner, George W. Bush.

"Perhaps in the future at a forum like this if we call it a fundraiser he might show up," Forbes said of the Texas governor, whom he accused of skipping campaign events to raise funds for his candidacy.

Forbes was on the receiving end on another issue, when conservative activist Bauer said Forbes' flat-tax proposal would let some corporations escape taxes "while you (taxpayers) are paying 25 percent between the income tax and the payroll tax."

"Gary, you're wrong," Forbes said, and noted proudly that while he was alone among GOP hopefuls in supporting a flat tax four years ago, others have joined the cause.

For the most part, the five men on stage stuck to the issues, refraining from attacking one another.

Stressing his opposition to abortion, Sen. John McCain of Arizona said the Republican Party must nevertheless reach out to voters who differ and have respectful disagreements -- and not a single one of his four rivals on the Dartmouth College stage offered any immediate challenge.

Forbes, a wealthy magazine publisher; Sen. Orrin Hatch; Bauer; and radio commentator Alan Keyes all said the nation's health care system needs reforming. Each offered slightly different prescriptions, and none made any immediate attempt to draw distinctions.

Together, the five men participated in a debate sponsored by CNN and WMUR-TV. It was the second such event in two nights in the state where the first presidential primary ballots of 2000 will be cast in February. Vice President Al Gore and Democratic rival Bill Bradley patrolled the same stage Wednesday.

The GOP event was interrupted briefly when an unidentified woman rose to demand a cut in military spending to benefit health care and education. Moderators swiftly regained control of the proceedings.

There were moments of self-deprecating humor: McCain, asked a question about legalizing marijuana, said: "Thank you, that is an excellent question, which I would prefer to duck." He didn't, explaining his opposition to legalization of the drug.

Onstage before the cameras began rolling, the candidates fielded questions from the audience. Bauer, a conservative activist, used the pre-debate to get the first jab at Bush, calling him "the absent governor from Texas."

He returned to the subject midway through the debate when he referred again to the governor's decision to stay away.

McCain, who emphasized his signature issue of campaign finance, has emerged as Bush's closest rival in the polls. Curiously, though, Forbes and Bauer ignored him in favor of jabbing at the absent Bush.

Bush made his presence felt, granting an interview to the Manchester television station two hours before the debate.

Appearing with his wife, Laura, Bush said that his family comes first and it is more important to him to be in Dallas, where she was being honored.

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