Tonight it is the Republicans' turn. Five GOP presidential contenders will appear together at Dartmouth College, hoping to take advantage of the absence of front-runner George W. Bush.

Recent polls of Republicans show the Texas governor's lead shrinking in New Hampshire with Arizona Sen. John McCain moving up. Bush has so far agreed to meet his rivals only once this year -- at another New Hampshire forum on Dec. 2.

The 60-minute encounter will be shown statewide on WMUR-TV and nationally on CNN at 8 p.m. EDT. Apart from McCain, tonight's Republican meeting will include Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, publisher Steve Forbes, talk show host Alan Keyes and conservative activist Gary Bauer.

Last night, the Democrats running for president, Vice President Gore and former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, stood on the same stage at Dartmouth College, taking two dozen questions from the audience.

Bush, who said he had to attend a ceremony in Dallas tonight honoring his wife, won't be completely absent from New Hampshire: he scheduled a five-minute television interview to be aired statewide just before the debate.

Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker told the Dallas Morning News that the campaign had approached WMUR-TV about an interview in order to better get the governor's message out. "We wanted to make sure the people of New Hampshire understood why the governor was not there," she said, "because he's with his wife on this important night."

That didn't "wash" with Forbes. "It just underscores that one candidate thinks he can play by his own rules," he told reporters today in nearby Claremont. "It will be noticed. Why won't he put himself at risk like the rest of us?"

"He's going to say his wife had a commitment and he made a commitment to her. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah," Forbes said, sitting in a booth at a local diner after shaking hands for 30 minutes. "And he'll go through his slogans while we're on stage going through substance."

"His consultants probably say this is brilliant, but the people of New Hampshire will say this doesn't wash," he said.

The five other contenders for the Republican presidential nomination also met last Friday in a nationally televised forum on the campus of the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Bush choose instead to attend a Republican fund-raiser in neighboring Vermont.

A new Marist poll had Bush leading McCain, 62 percent to 10 percent, for the GOP nomination. The poll also found Bush leading both Gore and Bradley. He led Gore 53 percent to 39 percent, and Bradley, 52 percent to 37 percent.

A separate national poll from Zogby International, a Utica, N.Y.-based firm, had Bush leading McCain, 64 percent to 12 percent, among Republican voters. Gore led Bradley among Democrats, 51 percent to 27 percent.

The Zogby poll showed Bush well ahead of both Gore and Bradley. And, in a boost for McCain, it showed the Arizona senator favored by 42 percent of voters with Gore at 40 percent, a statistical dead heat. The poll had Bradley ahead of McCain, 41 percent to 34 percent.

Strolling the streets of Nashua this morning, Bradley was typically low key in assessing last night's joint appearance with the vice president at Dartmouth. "It was a good night for democracy," he said. "I enjoyed it. I had a good time."

The former senator renewed his complaint that Gore was misrepresenting the cost of Bradley's health care plan, saying I strongly disagree that our program costs anything near what he says."

But Bradley added that in this time of economic prosperity "if we can't do something about this now, when can we do something about it.?"

He said has no interest in squabbling with the vice president. "You should save your strength for a positive message, save your outrage for conditions in America," such as child poverty.

Gore didn't spend any time this morning in New Hampshire, leaving first thing for Iowa. But last night, he spent a lot of time. Following the hour-long televised town meeting, Gore -- in a spontaneous moment that had the feeling of a bit script -- said he would stick around.

He then proceeded to stay on stage for 90 minutes surrounded about 45 or 50 Dartmouth student, looking earnestly into their eyes. The students were suitably star struck.

"It is very nice to see the vice president is a real person. He is a real man, he is even balding," said sophomore Megan Stevens. She said she liked that Gore was more assertive than Bradley. "I like them both, but at this point, I would vote for Gore."

After he finally left the hall, Gore had the spin machine working in high order: three Cabinet members -- Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and Education Secretary Richard Riley -- were here along with a half dozen New Hampshire officials unsurprisingly claiming that Gore was triumphant.

The line of the night was the the human Gore. "He is a man of humor; he has the ability to connect with people," said Richardson.

"He is a man of humor. This is the Al I know," Riley said.

Bradley left the spin to his spokesman, Eric Hauser. Asked about the new Gore: Hauser said, "I don't know about that. Authenticity rings true or it doesn't."