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Republican presidential candidates gather for their debate in Manchester, N.H. From left are, Gary Bauer; Texas Gov. George W. Bush; Steve Forbes; Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah; Alan Keyes; and Sen. John McCain of Arizizona. AP photo]

Debaters target criticism at Bush

Five Republican challengers look to trip up the front-runner in his debate debut.

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By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 1999

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- For months the Republican challengers to front-runner George W. Bush begged the Texas governor to debate on a national stage.

When Bush finally joined them Thursday night, they couldn't wait to pick him apart.

Bush received criticism from each of the other five GOP candidates for president on issues ranging from tax cuts to abortion, from the retirement age to his list of contributions on his Internet site.

As expected, magazine publisher Steve Forbes led the attack. Trailing far behind Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain, the multimillionaire tried to provoke a fight and repeatedly returned to Bush's proposed tax cuts.

"It's small, it keeps the IRS in place, and that's not right," said Forbes, who advocates a single flat-rate tax.

Bush remained unruffled.

"For some it's not enough," he said of his proposal, which would cut taxes $483-billion over five years. "For some, my tax cut is too big -- which leads me to believe I may be doing something that is just right."

What would happen to the tax cuts if the economy soured and the budget surplus disappeared?

"If we elect a Democrat the surplus will go away," Bush quipped, "because they will spend it all."

This was the first debate featuring all six Republican candidates: Bush, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Forbes, radio commentator Alan Keyes, conservative activist Gary Bauer and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.

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The Texas governor skipped three earlier forums, but he will appear at two more before the end of the year. One will be in Arizona and the other will be in Iowa, where the Jan. 24 caucuses will provide the first real test.

With six candidates, even 90-minutes provided little opportunity Thursday night for detailed answers or exchanges. Two moderators, Karen Brown of host station WMUR and Brit Hume of Fox News, took turns asking questions of each candidate. Responses were limited to a minute or less.

Perhaps the best line of the night came from McCain, as candidates were asked questions about their confidence in Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. Forbes criticized Bush for supporting Greenspan and said he would closely question Greenspan about "that crazy theory that prosperity causes inflation."

But McCain joined Bush in valuing Greenspan's views on the economy.

"If he died, I would prop him up and put a pair of dark glasses on him," McCain joked.

McCain only indirectly faulted Bush's tax plan and left the harsh criticisms to others. Bush came to McCain's defense after the Arizona senator fielded two tough questions from the journalists about his temper and a whisper campaign about whether the former prisoner of war is stable enough to be president.

"He's a good man -- I don't know what compelled me to say that," Bush added as the two men shared a laugh.

McCain, a strong supporter of campaign finance reform, said he does get angry about issues such as special interests controlling government. "Do I feel passionate about issues?" he asked. "Absolutely."

Except for one occasion, Bush stayed above the fray.

Forbes accused Bush of preparing to raise the retirement age, which the Texas governor referred to as one of several options to extending Social Security's fiscal viability. Bush pulled out a copy of a magazine column Forbes wrote in 1977 where the publisher advocated raising the retirement age himself.

Responding to other questions, Bush defended his record in Texas on the environment and rejected attacks from environmental groups. He said he would consider supporting proposed national clean air standards.

Bush avoided any gaffes like the recent stumble when he failed to name three leaders of international hot spots. Asked what he reads, he named several newspapers, mysteries, and a biography of former Secretary of State Dean Acheson. He said he is the only candidate with a proven record as a chief executive.

Bauer said his top priority as president would be to work to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that guarantees a woman's right to an abortion. He has focused his campaign on ending abortion and enhancing moral values. "The culture is coarser than it was four or eight years ago," Bauer said.

Keyes, the only black candidate, renewed his criticism of the media, which he considers racist for devoting so little attention to his campaign. He said reporters focus on race instead of the moral issues he wants to talk about.

Hatch, asked about a patient's bill of rights that failed to get through the GOP-led Congress, said HMO patients should be able to sue their provider only after going through a separate appeals process first.

Meanwhile, Forbes aides distributed a copy of an editorial endorsement that was to run in today's Manchester Union Leader, which could help him consolidate support among conservatives. The editorial called Bush "a nice guy but an empty suit with no philosophical underpinning."

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