In N.H. living room, few minds made up

By Yvonne Abraham, Globe Staff, 1/7/2000

OVER, N.H. - Last night's debate between the Republican presidential candidates did not help the nine uncommitted voters in John and Jane O'Connor's living room make up their minds, but it did hone their choices.


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'


The debate was a free-for- all of six GOP hopefuls, but at the end of the night, only two were in the running with these voters - Texas Governor George W. Bush and Arizona Senator John McCain. And it was clear that McCain had earned their strong consideration more on his personality than on the issues.

Even before the debate began, the 12 viewers gathered in this Seacoast city were discussing the merits of campaign-finance reform as an election issue.

''Nobody cares about campaign finance reform,'' said Neil Troost, 39, a photographer. ''McCain should get off that.''

Troost's concern this election year is taxes. Much more relevant, he said.

But just minutes after the debate began, campaign finance came up, in the form of accusations, first raised in the Globe, that McCain had exerted undue influence on the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of a large donor to his campaign.

McCain said his actions were appropriate, but he argued there was no way to avoid the appearance of impropriety under the current system, which ''taints all of us, no matter what we do. ... We're all under a cloud of suspicion.''

These voters said they were satisfied with that answer, and thought it unfair when moderator Tim Russert of NBC News grilled McCain after another reporter had already challenged him twice on his intervention with the FCC.

''He's chairman of the [Senate Commerce] committee,'' said Steve Hodgson, 55, a senior master sergeant in the Air National Guard. ''It seems reasonable what he's saying.'' Hodgson said he was undecided, but leaning toward McCain because he has spoken so strongly of safeguarding benefits for veterans.

Though they were reserving judgment, most in the room were intrigued by McCain - even educator Liz Dubois, 40, who usually votes for Democrats.

A couple of people said they found Bush annoying. Hodgson said he was suspicious of the Texas governor because he had come into the race with so much more money than the others.

''All that money, big business,'' Hodgson said before the debate. ''Who's he speaking for?''

When the debate was over, few minds had been changed. The three McCain supporters were still with the Arizona senator. The nine others said they were still undecided, though most agreed that the campaign had come down to Bush and McCain,

''I'd like to see a morph of all of them into one,'' said Troost. ''There are things about all of them I like tremendously, but they all have a key thing I really don't like, which makes it hard to make a solid choice.''

The two-man race seen by these people is reflected in polls that show a tight race between Bush and McCain in the nation's first primary.

''I'm maybe 75 percent for McCain,'' said Joyce Wells, 52. ''Not because of what I saw on the debate, but from what I saw when he was on television today. What you see is what you get, and I like that.''

Meaghan O'Connor, 18, who will vote in her first primary Feb. 1, was impressed by Alan Keyes's response on a question about the separation of church and state. But not that impressed.

''He's a good speaker,'' said O'Connor. ''I would never vote for him.''

Dubois, citing the Republicans' comments on abortion and on gays in the military, said she would continue to vote Democratic. But she still had a favorable impression of McCain: ''He seems the least Republican of all the candidates,'' she said. ''I'll be following him much more.''

Julie Black, a 36-year-old homemaker, was disappointed that the candidates did not talk about education more, or the environment at all. She said she might vote for a Democrat, though ''the only one I'd be interested in is McCain. Not for his ideas, but for the person he is. He seemed more honest.''

McCain had led Hodgson to consider using his vote for purely strategic purposes.

''I don't think we in New Hampshire will make the decision about who the next president is going to be,'' Hodgson said. ''That makes me want to vote for McCain so that he can continue on. I would hate to see him drop out.''