GOP candidates chat before debate   Observed by a technician, George W. Bush, left, chats before the debate with Gary Bauer, center, and John McCain, right. (Globe Staff Photo / Jonathan Wiggs)

Bush, McCain dominate GOP debate

Front-runners clash on taxes, campaign funds

By Jill Zuckman and Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 1/7/2000

DURHAM, N.H. - The six Republican candidates last night tossed aside decorum and format in a televised debate that crackled with vitriol and wounding humor and saw the contenders clash on taxes, gays in the military, and the proper role of God in the Oval Office.


Here are the particulars of tonight's Republican presidential candidates debate.
PARTICIPANTS: Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Steve Forbes, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer
TIME: 7-8 p.m.
PLACE: Johnson Theatren Paul Creative Arts Center, the University of New Hampshire
MODERATOR: NBC's Tim Russert
SPONSORS: New England Cable News, Manchester Union Leader, New Hampshire Public Television.
PANEL: Alison King of New England Cable News, John DiStaso of The Union Leader, Jenny Attiyeh of New Hampshire Public Television.


Bush, McCain dominate GOP debate
In N.H. living room, few minds made up
Excerpts cast religion, taxes in spotlight
Contenders romp in a colloquial exchange
Truth Squad: Confusion over surplus and taxes in GOP debate
Here we go again: A Bush pledges 'no new taxes'


It was hot from the start, especially for the two front-runners, Texas Governor George W. Bush and Arizona Senator John McCain, who took the toughest questions, faced the harshest criticisms, and controlled the spotlight for most of the event.

Bush, after describing his tax-cut plan, was pressed hard to say whether he would rule out any tax increase as president: the sort of blanket pledge that proved damaging to his father as president.

''This is not only no new taxes, this is tax cuts, so help me God,'' Bush said, though he later admitted he might have to raise taxes in a time of war.

''If I ever commit troops, I'm going to do so with one thing in mind, and that's to win,'' Bush said.

''And spend what it takes?'' asked the moderator, NBC's Tim Russert.

''Absolutely,'' Bush replied, ''if we go to war.''

McCain, meanwhile, faced a series of questions about his efforts to influence action by the Federal Communications Commission in a case that involved a major contributor to his campaign. McCain's actions on behalf of Paxson Communications, a television conglomerate, were described in a Globe story Wednesday.

McCain stoutly defended his actions and honor, refusing to say that he had used poor judgment in the matter. Instead, he called it a case study in the need for campaign finance reform of the sort he regularly touts on the campaign trail.

''The reason why I've worked so hard for campaign finance reform: Because all this money washing around Washington, and all these uncontrolled contributions taint all of us,'' he said. ''No matter what we do, we are under a cloud of suspicion. And I am one of those as well. And that's why I have fought so hard, and will continue to fight so hard to clean up this mess, and return the government back to the people of this country, which they've clearly lost.''

The debate, held at the University of New Hampshire, was sponsored by The Union Leader of Manchester, New England Cable News, and New Hampshire Public Television. The format was designed to give each candidate more or less equal play, but as the focus of the debate lingered on Bush and McCain, the other candidates gathered at the University of New Hampshire clearly began to chafe. Former Reagan administration aide Gary Bauer was first to interrupt their back-and-forth with a sarcastic question: ''Would you guys like to go out for dinner?''

A different tone

Last night's debate was markedly different from the tone and substance of the Democrats' get-together Wednesday night. The Republicans showed more anger and heat, particularly as they denounced Vice President Al Gore and former Senator Bill Bradley for urging that gays be allowed to serve openly in the military.

Gore and Bradley said they would only appoint officers to the joint chiefs of staff who were willing to allow gay soldiers to serve openly in the military. Bauer called that notion ''idiotic,'' and said he told Gore so during a brief encounter yesterday in a Manchester diner. Former Ambassador Alan Keyes, another candidate, said he would ban gays from the military entirely.

Both McCain and Bush said they would keep the current ''don't ask, don't tell'' policy, which McCain said is working well.

The two front-runners were generally respectful of each other last night, though they didn't hesitate to outline their differences on taxes and campaign finance. Bush declined an opportunity to criticize McCain for the FCC incident, but he did complain about McCain's crusade to eliminate unregulated donations to the parties.

''My objection with John is not how he's conducted himself as chairman of the Commerce Committee,'' Bush said. ''My objection is, is he's proposing a campaign funding reform that will hurt Republicans and hurt the conservative cause. He's asking us to unilaterally disarm, which I will refuse to do.''

McCain rejoined that eliminating ''soft money'' donations would also hurt the Democrats and the unions.

''What you're saying is that we should continue what happened in 1996,'' McCain said, referring to the flood of soft money that led to investigations of the Clinton-Gore re-election effort. ''That's disgraceful. Chinese money, Indonesian money came into the campaign. We'll never know about the breaches of security.''

Views on abortion

Moving to abortion, Bauer tagged Bush for refusing to apply an antiabortion ''litmus test'' to federal court nominees. Bauer noted that Bush's father nominated New Hampshire's David Souter to the Supreme Court, an act unpopular with many conservatives.

''I not only think that President Bush made a colossal mistake by putting a justice on the court that is a reliable vote for Clinton and Gore, I believe we can never afford to make another mistake like that,'' Bauer said. ''Look, seven of the current nine Supreme Court justices were appointed by Republican presidents. Abortion should be over.''

Bush, asked to respond to Bauer's comment, delivered a generally worded answer that contained no commitment to apply an antiabortion litmus test to nominees. Instead, he stressed his experience as a chief executive.

''I'm the only one on the stage who's appointed judges,'' Bush said. ''And my judges strictly interpret the Constitution. And that's what I hope all of us would do when we appoint judges, to put people on the bench that strictly interpret the Constitution and do not use the bench as a place from which to legislate.''

Bush then declined to speak for his father, saying, ''My dad can defend himself.''

At another point, Bush was pressed on a statement in an Iowa debate that the philosopher he most admired was Jesus Christ. Russert asked whether such a comment was offensive to atheists, Jews, Muslims, and others who may not share his view of Christ.

''The answer (about) religion, it doesn't make me better than you or anybody else,'' Bush said. ''Some may respect the answer, some many not; I really don't care. It's me, it's how I live my life.''

Bush added: ''I would take an expression to the Oval Office, `Dear God, help me.''

''So would we, Governor,'' interjected Bauer, who has forged strong ties with the Christian Coalition while aggressively attacking Bush.

Bush seemed stunned for a moment before saying, ''That wasn't very Christian of you.''

For most of the evening publisher Steve Forbes struggled for his share of the air time. And the first question he faced was obviously not one he was eager to answer: Why, despite spending millions of dollars of his own money, he lags in third place in the polls. The wealthy publisher insisted he was doing better than the media has reported.

''I am independent. The special interests and lobbyists have no hooks into me. And that's why I think my campaign is catching on,'' he said.

Forbes had hoped to get a major boost from last month's endorsement from the Manchester-Union Leader, but he has seen only a slight increase in the polls, prompting a panelist who works at the paper to ask last night why ''some view you as aloof and out of touch.''

Forbes answered with a gesture that drew a big laugh.

''Maybe you want me to give a hug to John,'' Forbes said, as McCain played along by putting his arm around him.

He also offered by far the toughest answer to a question about whether the Clinton administration should have sent a Cuban boy, rescued as he and his mother tried to escape to Florida, back to his homeland.

The boy, Forbes said, is ''Bill Clinton's human sacrifice to Fidel Castro.''

Utah Senator Orrin Hatch also faced a question about the viability of his effort. He said that he continues to believe that the American public is hungry for his sort of seasoned leadership.

Of the four trailing candidates, Bauer was notably the most combative and forceful, as he continued to criticize Bush and to articulate his antiabortion views.

But it was Keyes who most visibly seethed at his sense that candidates other than Bush and McCain were getting less time to articulate their views. At one point he aimed his fire directly at Russert, saying the moderator must be planning to run for office himself.