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Bush's first debate: It's important, but not make-or-break

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By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 1999

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- There are rites of passage in all walks of life.

For high school students there are first cars, dates and proms.

For newlyweds, there are first apartments, anniversaries and children.

For presidential candidates, there are first campaign trips, fundraising reports and debates.

George W. Bush, who performed spectacularly as he passed the two early milestones months ago, finally hits that next marker tonight. The Texas governor makes his debate debut here at the state's only network television station. The 90-minute debate, first to feature all six Republican candidates, will be broadcast live nationally on Fox News Channel.

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There hasn't been this much anticipation about a single event in the GOP primary since the Iowa straw poll in August, which Bush easily won. Hopefully, the debate will be more meaningful.

"There have not been a lot of watershed moments," Concord lawyer and Bush supporter Tom Rath observed Wednesday. "This is important. Is it make or break? No."

But it is another test that the Texas governor cannot afford to fail.

Bush holds a large lead in opinion polls in Florida and nationally. In New Hampshire, home of the first-in-the-nation primary Feb. 1, he is in a dead heat with Arizona Sen. John McCain.

When he speaks off-the-cuff, Bush can talk himself into trouble.

He renewed interest in questions about possible drug use as a young man by spontaneously answering a reporter's questions about whether he could pass federal background checks during his father's administration (he said he could).

He mislabeled Kosovars (he called them Kosovarians).

He walked into an ambush by a Boston television reporter who asked him to name the leaders of four international hot spots (he missed three).

Separately, those instances meant little. But making similar mistakes in his first debate would raise more significant questions about Bush's competency.

In more structured settings, Bush performs well.

He received favorable reviews for his first foreign policy speech last month, as he read it word-for-word from teleprompters and took no questions. He survived his first appearance on NBC's Meet the Press with Tim Russert, after aides reportedly reviewed two years of tapes to learn every question Russert asked others about Bush.

The debate will be different. No more dancing as though the steps were painted on the floor. This is learning to jitterbug as others stick out their legs and hope for a stumble.

When Bush's plane lands here this afternoon, he will find freezing temperatures, several hundred reporters and unfriendly fire on several fronts.

Some New Hampshire voters, accustomed to individual attention, sniff that Bush has not spent as much time here as McCain or Steve Forbes. The Sierra Club is airing an ad criticizing Bush's environmental record in Texas. The National Abortion Rights Action League is broadcasting one that warns Bush is an abortion rights opponent and "could pose a great threat to legal abortion."

Yet don't bet on Bush fumbling.

He has something new to talk about in the $483-billion tax cut over five years he unveiled Wednesday, a detailed proposal with something for everyone. He has sound bites memorized, and his friendly demeanor comes through on television.

"People will be looking at how he handles himself," said Linda Fowler, director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College. "The likelihood that he will get a question he can't handle is pretty small."

Fowler said there is even more pressure on McCain and Forbes.

McCain, the former prisoner of war, needs to demonstrate he is an even match for Bush on stage just as he is in the polls.

Forbes, the multimillionaire publisher, is in a desperate situation despite his investment in time and television ads. He ranks a distant third, and may be tempted to revert to his 1996 attack strategy in his first direct encounter with Bush.

The remaining three candidates, radio commentator Alan Keyes, conservative activist Gary Bauer and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, are bit players enjoying their few minutes on the national stage.

The star is still Bush.

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