Steve Forbes, furiously seeking weak spots in the Republican presidential front-runner, asserted early during last Thursday's New Hampshire debate: "We should get rid of the capital gains tax, which my friend George Bush refuses to touch."

Bush did not respond. None of the other GOP hopefuls did either. Forbes did not return to the subject. So, there goes capital gains. Since the issue is not included in the Bush tax package, and nobody seems to care, prospects are bleak for removing this obstacle to upwardly mobile American entrepreneurs and investors.

That points to the real trouble with Bush's first debate appearance. From the standpoint of confirming his nomination, all he had to do in Manchester was avoid egregious errors -- which he accomplished. But both the tax plan released two days earlier and what the Texas governor said Thursday dashed dreams of renewing the conservative revolution once a Republican is back in the White House.

Bush, in his first debate, did not commit the belly-flop that his adversaries prayed for, and he probably never will. But it was not an artistic performance, as when Bush unintentionally repeated his mantra of being "the governor of the second biggest state" that "if it were a nation . . . would be the 11th largest economy in the world." That flub, duly noted Friday morning at his Austin headquarters, may well have gone unnoticed by the meager national television audience.

The significance of Bush's debate performance, however, was confirmation of the cautious approach taken in his tax program. Its marginal rate reductions and phasing out of the estate tax merit gentle applause.

But as the end product of the candidate's advisers negotiating with each other, Bush's package looks like something that would emerge at the tail end of the legislative process rather than a visionary statement by a popular candidate 11 months before the election.

The details were forged by former Federal Reserve governor Lawrence Lindsey, the governor's chief economic adviser. Lindsey told me that, in contradiction to Republican policy for two decades, individual income tax cuts have a much higher priority than capital gains cuts.

But the decision was clearly Bush's. In private sessions, he has come out against lessening taxes on capital on grounds that it tilts the GOP toward being the plutocrat's party. That betrays a numbing ignorance of the impact of taxing capital, and in fact mimics the Democratic line (but did not protect Bush from Al Gore's assault on him for catering to the rich in his tax plan).

Equally daunting, Bush is alone among Republican candidates in disavowing tax reform. Leading GOP tax reformers -- House Majority Leader Dick Armey and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, Bush's fellow Texans -- have concluded during the past five years that reform must await a Republican president. But the best that comes out of Austin is consolation from aides that just possibly there might be a tax reform in the fourth, fifth or sixth year of a Bush presidency, though there surely are no guarantees.

Why in the world would a Republican leader abandon efforts to demolish the Internal Revenue Code and the Internal Revenue Service? Bush has come to believe, like Donald Trump, that the 1986 tax reform was a disaster. Certainly, the Washington lobbyists who support the governor tell him so. Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman's mordant assessment that the lobbyists will never permit comprehensive tax reform seems prescient.

Sen. John McCain, currently running a poor second to Bush, uses Friedman's theory in his crusade for campaign finance reform. He finally remembered to say so in closing remarks at Manchester: "I want to reform the tax code, which is 44,000 pages long. I can't do that unless we rid Washington of the special interests."

But George W. Bush is infinitely more likely than John McCain to be in the Oval Office in 2001. And now granting relief for the new investing class and smashing the present tax system clearly are nowhere on his agenda.

(C)1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.