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  George Bush Absent From GOP Debate

By Ron Fournier
AP Political Writer
Friday, Oct. 29, 1999; 2:14 a.m. EDT

HANOVER, N.H. –– Chicken George is squawking at another Bush.

Five Republican presidential candidates debated for the second straight week minus the leading contender, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. His absence was a family matter, Bush argued from afar – but opponents in both parties were not in a forgiving mood.

"He's a chicken," said the chicken. Actually, it was a Democrat dressed as a yellow-feathered bird carrying a sign that read, "Chicken George Won't Debate."

Bush's rivals ran with the theme.

"The absent governor from Texas," conservative activist Gary Bauer said as the debaters gathered onstage Thursday night to warm up the audience.

"Perhaps in the future, at a forum like this, if we call it a fund-raiser he might show up," sniffed publisher Steve Forbes.

Democrats first used the fowl tactic in 1992 during the re-election campaign of Bush's father, who was mocked for delaying debates with challenger Bill Clinton.

This time, this Bush has less reason to be scared of Chicken George. He is scheduled to debate Dec. 2, and was given a front-runner's break Thursday night.

WMUR-TV, the New Hampshire station that co-sponsored the hourlong debate with CNN, gave Bush and his wife, Laura, the top few minutes of its evening newscast to explain why he didn't attend. She was receiving an award at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and he had promised months ago to attend.

"I hope the people, I think the people, understand I love my wife," Bush said.

No other candidate would have been given the air time, free from the risk of sharing a stage, his rivals said.

"I thought that was catering to someone who was giving people up here the brush-off," said Lyn Nofziger, Forbes' consultant.

Forbes himself said, "One candidate thinks he can play by his own rules."

But the fact is, Bush can. As long as he is the front-runner, he has the most ability to dictate the terms of the campaign.

"I don't think anybody thinks Bush hurt himself by missing this event," Republican consultant Scott Reed said after watching the debate at his suburban Washington home. "If anything, he gained by having his five minutes to himself while most people in New Hampshire were watching television."

For those who watched the forum, there were no major developments.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, conservative activist Gary Bauer, commentator Alan Keyes, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Forbes differed little.

Bauer criticized Forbes' ideas on a flat tax to replace the income tax, but the gloves never came off.

Unless Bush is declared the winner for drawing the bye, McCain stands to gain the most from the night. Already gaining ground as the closest to Bush in the polls, he burnished his image as a reformer by turning several questions into a plea for overhauling campaign finance laws.

McCain's post-debate appearance drew crowds of reporters and a circle of TV lights, the kind of reception normally afforded the front-runner.

"I'm sure Gov. Bush will come to debates and we will have opportunities," McCain said, "particularly since we're moving up so rapidly in the polls."

Indeed, Bush had planned to avoid debates until January but advanced his schedule to respond to McCain's gains. By issuing two statements explaining his absence and sitting for the WMUR interview, Bush also heeded the advice of New Hampshire supporters who warned that voters might soon think he was taking the state for granted.

"This was a warm-up for the main event, when the front-runner debates in December," Reed said.

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EDITORS: Ron Fournier is chief political writer for The Associated Press.

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press

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