IS IT possible that Republicans are more fun than Democrats? The question arises out of the unexpectedly entertaining debate among GOP presidential candidates in Houston last week.
Much has been written and spoken about the politics of the matter, theclear victory of a de-gushed and de-babbled front-runner, George Bush. It was the personalities that were so riveting. Surprisingly, Bob Dole, running strong, and in much better shape than Bush on such haunting issues as the economy and Iran-contra, was not his competition. No -- hold your hats -- it was Pat Robertson the television preacher, who seems to fondle the camera as if it were his teddy bear.
For bemused observers who have been brought up in the simple creed that Democrats have more juice and ginger and enjoy life, the dominant impression may have been that the six men gathered under the aegis of William F. Buckley Jr. and his "Firing Line" program were somehow more authentic human beings, more grown up than their Democratic counterparts, and with much stronger conviction.
A little touched, here and there, to be sure: Some of their ideas make your hair curl. But at least you felt they weren't just mouthing words that were aimed straight at the heart of the early caucus or primary voters.
Surely, Pete DuPont, who is at heel of the hunt, could not be suspected of courting either Iowa of New Hampshire when he said he would eliminate farm subsidies and make Social Security voluntary.
In contrast with the seven Democrats (their number at that time included Joe Biden) who met under identical circumstances in the summer and who avoided verbal body contact, the Republicans mixed it up with considerable zest.
Credit for the liveliness of the evening must go to DuPont, who comes across as a slightly batty blueblood. He suddenly turned on Bush in the middle of an exchange about the INF treaty (deplored by all except the vice president) and accused him of being deficient in "vision, principal . . . policy."
Bush came back at him with a good shove. "I think it is a nutty idea to fool around with Social Security," he said. For viewers who remember that Bush's idol, Ronald Reagan, suggested the same thing and lost the 1976 New Hampshire primary thereby, it was a most diverting moment.
Thereafter, there was a good deal of needling, in which Dole, a past master, did not participate, possibly because of his reputation in that regard.
The Senate minority leader seemed to have been over-programmed by a staff which had watched his calamitous 1976 encounter with Fritz Mondale too many times. He observed somewhat ruefully, "I came here tonight to be nice and polite. This debate has started to liven up."
But Dole, who had been coached to use the word "leadership" but not to give the context, contributed little to the liveliness. The last thing in the world he was prepared for, plainly, was spontaneity. He is, after all, a lifelong Republican. He could not get the beat. When he tried to regain his name for jocosity, he addressed "those who may still be watching." The suggestion that the evening was a bore was off the mark. Dole, who has been crowding Bush, seemed out of his element. He frowned; he slouched in his chair.
Robertson, on the other hand, was entirely at home. He glowed and chortled and smiled, peddling harmlessness and the evening's most insistent social conscience. He led off boldly with the statistics on illiteracy in Houston, a brave move amid Lone Star chauvinists.
He diplomatically corrected Jack Kemp, who attributed a quote from Jefferson to Walter Lippmann. "As a Jeffersonian . . . " he began smoothly.
Robertson had to be gratified by the endorsements he picked up. All but Bush, who showed a sense of security he rarely displays on the stump, groveled appropriately about the tremendous contribution Robertston's fanatical fundamentalist flock could make to the party.
Kemp has had his thick hair thinned and trimmed, and he seemed psychically shorn, too. He got in a dig at Bush during the obeisances to Reagan -- "I did not campaign against him in 1980" -- but was mostly subdued, as befits an apostle of supply-side economics in this time of agony on Wall Street.
Gen. Alexander Haig had obviously been drilled to be "reassuring" for those who remembered his terrifying "I'm-in-charge" initiative of 1981. He engaged in some sharp international name-dropping with Bush about which Europeans really favored the INF. But he threw away his script and launched into a bulging-eyed tirade against the "one-man, one-vote anarchy" of congressional leaders who no longer come down to the White House with a done deal. "We must reinstitute discipline in the Congress" he declared in tones that suggested an imminent artillery strike.
It was all in all a good show, if not one the Democrats could enjoy.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.