By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 4, 1999
MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The day after the great debate that wasn't, the world of Republican presidential politics still spun in the same direction.
George W. Bush, John McCain and Steve Forbes hit the campaign trail again Friday in the first primary state. Television ads continued to roll. And the pecking order among the six Republican candidates seemed solidified rather than reordered.
Bush and McCain remain ahead of the pack less than two months before the Feb. 1 primary. Forbes is still trying to buy his way in with his millions and his smart bombs lobbed toward the Texas governor. The other three candidates are irrelevant.
Forced by McCain's surge in the opinion polls to stop skipping debates, Bush performed well enough Thursday night to maintain the race's status quo. He didn't win. But he didn't lose, either.
The front-runner performed the political rope-a-dope, throwing few punches but deflecting the jabs aimed at him. He defused Forbes' accusations that he wants to raise the retirement age by denying it, then whipped out a magazine column Forbes wrote 22 years ago to prove the publisher once advocated raising the age himself.
On other occasions, Bush sounded programmed. He repeated many of the same sound bites he has been using for months.
"I've been the governor of the second-biggest state in the United States," he declared while answering a question about whether he would have the experience to assemble the Gulf War coalition the way his father did. "If it were a nation, it would be the 11th-largest economy in the world."
That doesn't address the issue, but it's good enough in an awkward debate where six candidates have less than a minute to answer.
Whether Bush could fare as well in a one-on-one encounter with either McCain or Vice President Al Gore, an accomplished debater, is entirely debatable. His responses would have to be more spontaneous, his grasp of specifics tighter.
If Bush failed Thursday night, it was in performing so cautiously that voters received too few glimpses of his personality. The winks, nods and quips that warm crowds at fundraisers were largely missing.
Any lasting impressions in that regard were left by McCain, who answered some tough questions about his character with humor and others about foreign policy with specifics.
The first two questions the Arizona senator fielded from two journalists were not about issues but his mental fitness. The former Vietnam prisoner of war has been the target of a whispering campaign, as opponents in Washington and Arizona anonymously question whether his war experiences and temper make him too unstable to be president.
"You know, a comment like that really makes me mad," McCain replied easily with a smile. "Do I feel passionately about issues? Absolutely. When I see the Congress of the United States spend $6-billion on unnecessary, wasteful pork-barrel spending and we have 12,000 enlisted families, brave men and women, on food stamps, yeah, I get angry."
A champion of campaign finance reform and a vocal critic of pork-barrel projects, he compared himself to two other familiar names from Arizona politics.
"From time to time those of us like Barry Goldwater and Morris Udall, who stand in independent fashion, are going to break some china, but I'm very proud of my record of achievement," McCain said.
After the debate, McCain's campaign consultant offered a biased but accurate assessment. "Authenticity. Something real," said Mike Murphy. "Ours wasn't the standard stump speech."
It played as well on national television as it did the night before at a town meeting in Exeter, where McCain answered 20 questions from an overflow crowd of several hundred.
McCain did not shoot at Bush during Thursday night's debate the way the others did, only indirectly criticizing the Texas governor's tax-cut plan.
"I think he did a fine job," McCain said of Bush's performance during an interview Friday on Good Morning America.
Then again, he doesn't have to be the critic.
Forbes' assaults on Bush on television and the campaign trail in New Hampshire may start to take a toll on the Texas governor. The beneficiary, though, will be McCain.
The Arizona senator has positioned himself as the most viable alternative to Bush. He has held more than 50 town meetings in New Hampshire, fielding questions in the sort of unscripted arenas that Bush generally avoids. He appeals to independent voters, who can vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary, as well as to Republicans.
It's a two-man race between Bush and McCain in New Hampshire. How angry that makes Forbes may determine which one of the other two guys wins.