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At GOP debate, Iowa sees new, relaxed Bush

After stumbling the last two times, the Texas governor gives fresh, even inspirational answers and avoids panicking.

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 14, 1999


DES MOINES, Iowa -- After two lackluster debate performances that threatened his front-runner status in the GOP presidential contest, Texas Gov. George W. Bush joined his competitors Monday night in a third face-off knowing that he had a lot to prove.

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With all eyes on him, Bush was more feisty and focused than in previous debates -- especially in exchanges with his most formidable opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain.

He did not hesitate, as he has before, when asked difficult questions, nor did he indulge in his usual habit of regurgitating predigested snippets from his stock stump speech. His demeanor was relaxed, and there were no "deer-in-the-headlights" moments of obvious panic as in the past.

Instead, Bush replied with bold, fresh and even inspirational answers.

"Don't be using drugs; drugs will ruin your life," Bush said in response to one question. And when asked to name his favorite philosopher, he surprised the audience by replying: "Christ, because he changed my heart."

Well aware of Bush's new vulnerability, his five challengers came to the debate with every intention of knocking him off stride. Gary Bauer, for example, tried to get him to commit to choosing an anti-abortion running mate, which he refused to do.

And McCain, who recently surpassed Bush in polls among voters in the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, sought to trip up the Texas governor by asking him whether he would be willing to forgo "soft money" contributions from big corporations and other special interests.

This was a particularly sticky question for Bush, who has raised record amounts of soft money -- so much, in fact, that he has been able to reject the public funding that every other candidate but millionaire publisher Steve Forbes is relying on. But Bush responded with confidence.

"I'll be glad to talk about it," Bush replied.

He quickly added that McCain's proposal for revamping the campaign finance system would hurt the Republican Party. He said he could not support any proposal that did not also put strict restrictions on labor union contributions, which are a staple of the Democratic Party.

Bush actually prompted this exchange by challenging McCain to support a tax cut similar to his $450-billion-plus proposal. Noting that the Arizona senator advocates eliminating pork-barrel spending, Bush said: "If you want to get rid of the pork in Washington, stop feeding the hog."

McCain replied that "what the American people really want" is campaign finance reform, not a tax cut. He called on Bush to pledge during the debate to get rid of soft money in campaigns.

While Bush did not rise to McCain's challenge, he insisted he could agree to a proposal that would accomplish that goal without hurting the GOP. "I agree we would not have corporate soft money and labor soft money," Bush said.

It was not clear whether Bush's improved performance in the third debate was good enough to erase the growing doubts among Republicans across the nation that he might not have a sufficient grasp of the issues to be the winner they are seeking in a matchup with Democrats Al Gore or Bill Bradley.

Just last week, Bush fell behind McCain in polls of likely voters in the Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary. A Reuters News Service poll shows McCain with 35 percent, compared with Bush's 32 percent.

Nevertheless, Bush's front-runner position remains solid in Iowa, where McCain has chosen not to participate in the Jan. 24 caucuses.

A Des Moines Register poll in early November showed Bush was leading the Republican pack among Iowa voters with 49 percent, compared with only 20 percent for his leading challenger, Forbes.

No one knows exactly why Bush's popularity has been slipping, putting him into what he acknowledges is "a heck of a race" after months as the clearly acknowledged front-runner. But many analysts have speculated that the slide in New Hampshire is a direct result of his weak performance in the first two debates.

Meanwhile, McCain, who has not mounted a full-fledged campaign in Iowa, surprised the audience by attacking one thing that is politically sacrosanct in this agriculture state: tax subsidies for ethanol production. Ethanol is made from corn, which Iowans are famous for.

"Ethanol is not worth it," McCain said.

His opponents hotly disagreed. "I support ethanol whether or not I'm in Iowa," Bush boasted.

When the audience erupted in applause, Bush quickly added: "I'm just warming up!"

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch got the biggest laugh of the night when he started to ask Forbes a question and the millionaire candidate gulped: "Hold onto your wallet." Hatch quipped, "Steve, I couldn't even lift your wallet."

Former ambassador Alan Keyes distinguished himself by being the only one of the six to express strong resistance to U.S. membership in the World Trade Organization, which he described as "unrepresentative, elected by no one."

Although McCain has no organization in Iowa, he concluded the debate by asking people to vote for him in the caucuses anyway.

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