Bush Passes on GOP Event That Draws 8 Hopefuls
By David Von Drehle
Eight candidates for the GOP presidential nomination addressed a gathering of New Hampshire Republicans as national politics, a perpetual mainstay of life in this state, notched up in intensity tonight. Although the primary is still nine months away, the evening -- filmed by banks of cameras and recorded by dozens of reporters from across the country -- showed that things are getting serious.
The seven-minute speeches were full of praise for freedom and small government, and full of attacks on President Clinton and his choice to succeed him, Vice President Gore. The candidates split most clearly on whether the United States should be involved in Kosovo. But because of the tragedy in Colorado 12 days earlier, the speeches returned continually to the deaths of innocent schoolchildren and the problem of evil.
Elizabeth Dole, former Cabinet member and head of the American Red Cross, arrived to some cries of "you go, girl!" But she drew scattered boos in the "Live Free or Die" state when she came out in favor of gun control measures: maintaining the assault weapons ban, outlawing armor-piercing bullets, requiring child-proof safety locks on handguns and providing more money for background checks on gun buyers.
But the message that seemed to resonate more powerfully was delivered by social conservative think-tanker Gary Bauer. He opened his speech with the story of Cassie Bernall, the Columbine student who was asked "Do you believe in God?" before she was murdered. The school was too timid to intervene when the killers extolled Hitler, Bauer said, "and yet, if a teacher had hung up the Ten Commandments in her classroom, she would've been fired."
One after another, the would-be nominees briefly addressed the largest gathering of its kind in New Hampshire GOP history. Some attacked violence in the media, others called for greater parental involvement and communities that will teach kids right from wrong. After Bauer and Dole came former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, a returnee from the 1996 campaign, and another '96 also-ran, antiabortion firebrand Alan Keyes.
Former vice president Dan Quayle was there, and publishing mogul Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes (another '96 alumnus), Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) and Sen. Robert C. Smith, the home state senator.
Missing: The early leader in the race, Texas Gov. George W. Bush -- although there were Texas yellow roses on a number of tables -- along with commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, making his third consecutive campaign, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who drew a round of applause when his reason for being absent was given. He was home celebrating his son's 13th birthday.
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