In-your-face politics of the '90s was reflected more by what went on outside rather than inside last week's presidential "town meetings" at Dartmouth College. While the two Democratic candidates debated, Vice President Al Gore's aides distributed throughout the pressroom prepared refutations of Bill Bradley's statements. Prior to the next night's Republican session, the Steve Forbes campaign handed out a package trashing the absent George W. Bush's record as governor of Texas.

These efforts failed to make news, but they told much about the peculiar quasi-debates. Front-runner Gore, borrowing techniques perfected by Bill Clinton, was focused on eliminating challenger Bradley's lead in the New Hampshire primary. All Republican hopefuls were bent on undermining Bush in order to reduce his immense lead.

Such tactics have a historical record of success, particularly in New Hampshire. But for now, at least, the two pacificatory candidates are faring best here. Bradley was oblivious to Gore's jabs, and Sen. John McCain let his GOP competitors take on Bush while he stood aside. That seemed to please the audiences, drawn by lot in this liberal enclave of a conservative state.

For Gore, the event continued his month-old reshaped campaign. His advisers knew that he could not repeat his Oct. 9 frontal assault on Bradley in Iowa, but they programmed Gore for a more discreet attack. Perspiring through his shirt while an almost languid Bradley looked on in seeming wonder, he tried to nick his impassive opponent on every conceivable issue (even misrepresenting Bradley's position on East Timor). While both avowed inflexibly liberal positions, Gore sought space to Bradley's right by asserting that his health care plan's costs are "way excessive."

With Gore's fervor bordering on goofy, he remained in the hall for two hours after the debate ended, taking questions from a few dozen voters and reporters until his wife dragged him away. Journalists accustomed to rewarding the candidate who draws the most blood gave Gore the edge on points, but uncommitted politicians agreed that Bradley was the clear winner.

There is no doubt about the big Republican loser: the missing Gov. Bush. His New Hampshire supporters privately admit he blundered in skipping the first two debates here, a rare miscalculation in his smoothly functioning operation that could result in McCain winning the New Hampshire primary. Acceleration of the nominating process has overtaken Bush's intent to shorten the campaign and reduce confrontations with lesser opponents.

The modification of Bush's grand strategy sufficiently to attend the next New Hampshire debate on Dec. 2 may cut the damage. He can also be happy that the structured format at Dartmouth limited his opponents ("the structure is a straitjacket," complained a Gary Bauer lieutenant). Forbes arrived determined to assault Bush, but barely managed to get in his crack that "if we called it [the debate] a fund-raiser, he might show up" (Forbes's own line tested earlier in the evening on the "NBC Nightly News").

But like Bradley, McCain had no intent of being the attacker. While the other Republican candidates blistered Bush in post-debate news conferences, the senator demurred. "I plan to foam at the mouth," a sardonic McCain, still miffed at a New York Times report about his temper, told me a few hours before the forum. Actually, he planned to be as presidential as possible.

Planned or not, he sounded markedly liberal for a self-described "proud conservative" seeking the Republican nomination. His 20-second closing statement could have been drafted for President Clinton: "There are great causes in the world, where there are hungry children, where there's seniors without shelter and where people are killing each other because of ethnic and tribal hatreds."

But no GOP rival took issue with McCain lest it hurt efforts to bring down Bush. What happened here was not reassuring to establishment Republicans, who in New Hampshire, as elsewhere, have staked the party's future on Bush. Given a five-minute interview by Manchester's WMUR-TV (cosponsoring the forums with CNN) to compensate for his absence, Bush cracked about his purchase of advertising time: "I hope your station appreciates it." It was intended to be funny, but missed as badly as Gore's frenzied efforts to be dynamic.

(C)1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.