He arrived by chartered jet at 3:30 p.m., oozing self-confidence, signing posters, posing for photos with the band of Bushies that had collected on the Wiggins Airways tarmac. He was acting front-runner-like. Not cocky, mind you, just possessed of this I-am-not-worried-about-a-li'l-ol'- debate attitude.
A reporter asked if he was nervous, and George W. Bush flashed a mock-scary look, his "Blair Witch Project" look, and then smiled.
"It's going to be an interesting evening," he said. "I've been looking forward to this moment."
Hard to believe that, but there he was at 8 p.m., standing behind a lectern at WMUR-TV studios here, hair neatly in place, squared off for the first time against the men who wish to be in his shoes: Arizona Sen. John McCain, magazine publisher Steve Forbes, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, conservative activist Gary Bauer and commentator Alan Keyes.
Despite political lore, campaign debates are rarely defining events that turn the fortunes of candidates. But since Bush has been anointed the Republicans' Leading Man, some of his rivals had no choice but to sniff around and see if they could discover a whiff of weakness, some way to interrupt the drumbeat of "Dubya" inevitability.
Could they refocus voters' attention on whether Bush is White House material? Is he smart? Cool under fire?
But all Hatch could come up with was this--an attack on Bush's Web site. "With all due respect, governor, it's pretty tough to use yours. Yours is not user-friendly."
Forbes, by far, was the most persistent anti-Bush pit bull. He said he was happy Bush was no longer AWOL. He attacked the Texas governor's position on Social Security and Internet taxes. But he spent most of his time monotonously distancing himself from Washington. He must have mentioned "Washington" 653 times, as though the nation's capital were the Evil Empire, as though someone had implanted an anti-Washington chip in his brain, as though the Oval Office he seeks were located in Pittsburgh.
For the most part, McCain, Bauer and Keyes didn't bother with Bush. Keyes was too busy ranting about the media, with their "phony polls" and what he called their racist coverage of his candidacy.
McCain, who is in the best position to overtake the front-runner--some polls show him in a virtual dead heat with Bush in New Hampshire--deflected questions about his temper with jokes and declared: "I am prepared to be president of the United States."
Bauer mentioned that he was the son of a janitor from Newport, Ky., who had risen to be one of six GOP candidates left standing. Message to young people, he said: You can grow up to be anything if you work hard enough and play by the rules.
This was only Bush's third debate in his short life as a politician; the first was in his 1994 gubernatorial race, the second in his 1998 reelection campaign. And the latter was on a Friday night in El Paso when half the state's residents are usually at a high school football game. Debating is not G.W.'s favorite thing to do. We're not talking about those eighth- and ninth-grade debate tournaments at the Kinkaid School in Houston. Those don't count.
Bush played nice, calling McCain "a good man. He's a good man." And he played rough, countering a Forbes jab at him on Social Security by pulling out a 1977 article Forbes wrote that discusses gradually raising the eligibility age.
Under questioning, Bush divulged his daily reading habits: the Dallas Morning News, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Austin American-Statesman. And said he also was reading a book about Dean Acheson and liked the occasional mystery story.
It all added up, in the opinion of Alex Pritchard, president of the National Debate Coaches Association, to a C. He said in an interview from Texas that he would give a C to Bush, a C to McCain and fail the rest of the class.
"I think the clear winners of the New Hampshire Republican debate," he said, "were Al Gore and Bill Bradley."
Mary Matalin, a veteran of Daddy George's presidential campaigns and someone who knows a little bit about debate prep, handicapped tonight's encounter for us beforehand. The pressure, she explained, was not on Little George but on his opponents.
"All he has to do is show why he's the front-runner," she said. "These other guys have to show why they're better. They have to knock him out."
And for that to occur, she continued, Bush would "really have to screw up, and that's not going to happen because he's not a screw-up."
There weren't any real foul-ups, and a knockout was perhaps too much to expect given the format. No opportunity for direct jousting. Rather, what we had tonight was more like a Sunday network talk show. The moderators, WMUR news director Karen Brown and Fox News managing editor Brit Hume, asked questions of each candidate, giving them 60 seconds to answer and then 45 seconds to handle a follow-up.
As usual, the candidates couldn't manage to keep track of their seconds. Which produced the most annoying aspect of the debate: The constant ringing of what sounded like an old-fashioned bicycle bell to signal that a candidate's time was up.
The candidates will get a chance to question each other Monday in Arizona. They will appear together again a week later in Iowa.
Hatch, however, with but a dollop of support in the polls, suggested they all hop on a bus, ditch their entourages and campaign together among the voters. Have real Lincoln-Douglas-style debates. Tonight's encounter he declared "boring."
Maybe Hatch should have been outside the WMUR studios, on Commercial Street, where hundreds of campaign volunteers gathered in a clash of dueling signs, chants and songs. Amid it all one guy stood out, his face beamed against a brick wall away from the crowd, a testament of what a fantastic country this is. The fella's name is Lobsterman and he, too, is running for president.
"These people call themselves the mainstream," he said, his voice booming over a loudspeaker. "Are they mainstream? I don't think so."
Lobsterman was anything but boring.