The duel between the laughing boy front-runner who has spent his life on Easy Street and the challenger who has been to hell and back did not occur at their encounter Thursday night. Texas Gov. George Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain couldn't have been nicer to each other at the GOP debate in New Hampshire.

Many spears and needles were aimed at the crown prince of the Republican Party by the other candidates, most persistently Steve Forbes, who is as amiable as a panda bear and pays many people megabucks to tell him that he's another come-from-behind Pat Buchanan. Forbes reprimanded Bush for failing to call for the abolition of the IRS. Nothing Forbes does seems to reach people; the only thing left for him to do is to pledge his personal fortune to replace the late, much-lamented Hsing-Hsing of the National Zoo.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch is the official vulture of the group. He has endorsed Bush, but circles him watching for any sign of a stumble or fall. Hatch scolded Bush for a campaign Web site that is not user-friendly. Alan Keyes, a black alpha male so aggressive that he makes Jesse Jackson look diffident, called the front-runner "Massa Bush" for his new tax scheme. Gary Bauer, with his kewpie-doll face and pro-life zealotry, complained that Bush had yet to come clean on abortion.

But not a hard word about Bush passed McCain's lips. Battling charges of a bad temper, McCain is under compulsion to speak softly. When debate moderator Brit Hume asked the senator how come the people who knew him best--in the Senate and at home--were endorsing Bush, he replied that it was "testimony to Governor Bush's attractiveness."

And Bush was not about to bash a war hero. McCain spent five and a half years in a Hanoi prison, where he was tortured for refusing early release, while Bush was flying in the Air National Guard in a berth arranged for him by his father.

At one point after the temper issue was raised, Bush said of McCain, "He's a good man." Amid the laughter, Bush quipped, "I don't know what compelled me to say that about you, senator."

What may have compelled him was the whispering campaign about McCain's temper, which seems to have originated among Bush supporters, among assiduous draft dodgers. All have denied complicity and Bush denies all knowledge. But the episode has brought back memories of his father's presidential campaign of 1988, when a flap over medical records somehow ended up with questions about Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis's mental stability. Dukakis's doctor held a news conference to say that the governor was all there. The ugly frosting on the cake was provided by Ronald Reagan, who declined to comment because he "never picked on an invalid." Voters have often told politicians they don't like that sort of thing.

The "psycho" smears of McCain have provided a nasty sub-theme in the primary story and have inflamed McCain's large following of veterans. The Republican state chairman in New Hampshire, Steve Duprey, said at the debate that it also seems to have backfired. Independents, that state's second-largest voting bloc after Republicans, had been drifting toward Bill Bradley, sure-thing Al Gore's Democratic challenger. Now they're considering going for McCain to express their sympathy or outrage.

McCain has hit upon the light touch as a way of dissolving the mud. It seemed to work quite well Thursday night. When Hume asked the provocative question about being no hero to his intimates, McCain deadpanned, "You know, a comment like that really makes me mad."

The debate had no moments, no stars. If anyone dominated, it was McCain, who made the audience laugh a time or two. He said that if Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan were to die, he would stuff him, prop him up and put dark glasses on him so that people would think he was still with us.

Bush, whose absence from previous debates was becoming an issue in this demanding state, acquitted himself creditably, if minimally. He seemed to have memorized his answers, rattling them off and nodding in self-satisfaction as he finished before his allotted time was up. He said he had a foreign policy with his state's neighbor, Mexico. He said he does, too, read books. Now he's reading a biography of Dean Acheson.

But McCain was much more nimble, from long exposure to contrary views. And Bauer is more articulate than the idolized governor, who relies on body language rather than on the King's English to communicate with voters.

In the press room, which was jammed with reporters, spinners and sightseers, the scribblers surrounded a clutch of British journalists and diplomatic observers. Reporters on deadline are desperate for perspective. The verdict: Bush performed part of his mission tonight. He had to prove that he was not a complete idiot in a situation like this. The second part he has yet to do--that is, to show depth, if he can. That's still the question.