The anxiety that gripped the Republican establishment nationwide the past 10 days was relieved Monday night at the City Center here. On a third try at debating five opponents for the Republican presidential nomination, George W. Bush finally seemed adept enough to survive hazards ahead.

It is not that the governor of Texas dominated the meandering debate. It is now abundantly clear that debating, particularly in the multiple candidate format, is not Bush's strength. He cannot dominate either his two principal opponents, John McCain or Steve Forbes, or lesser candidates. Someone watching the 90 minutes here surely would not pick Bush as the candidate anointed so early with so little experience.

But the hurdle was not high at Des Moines. Bush had only to better his uncertain performance in the two earlier debates at Manchester, N.H., and Phoenix, and he certainly did that--with the help of Sen. McCain's daring but failed high wire act. The GOP establishment pillars, from county chairmen to Washington lobbyists, can now feel easier about their choice.

McCain, who long ago made the dubious decision not to campaign in Iowa because he opposes ethanol subsidies, showed up for the debate and immediately assailed the favorite tax break of Iowa farmers. For good measure, he labeled a federal anti-methamphetamine project in Iowa as a horrid example of earmarked pork. No matter how voters watching on television reacted, the Iowa Republicans in the auditorium hated it.

Bush's advisers were delighted that for the first time he went on offense. Bush berated McCain's campaign finance reform plan for not protecting union members from involuntary political contributions, and he got the senator off balance on tax cuts. McCain did not seem to understand that his proposed raising of the 15 percent tax bracket would have no influence whatever on a person already in that bracket, while Bush would cut the rate. "Boring," pronounced top McCain strategist Mike Murphy, as the senator's entourage hurried for the plane to return to more hospitable New Hampshire and avoid spending the night in Iowa. It was a wasted evening for Bush's principal challenger.

McCain as a target obstructed Forbes and Gary Bauer from undermining Bush. "If we can get Bush rattled again," a Forbes strategist had confided to me, "then Steve can start to compare his record with Bush's." But Forbes was able to point up deficiencies in the Bush tax plan even less than he did in the first two debates. The debate's unstructured format gave Forbes little more than five minutes, less than half the time allotted Bush and McCain.

Nor were Bush's adversaries united in how to assail him. Bauer confronted Bush on his refusal to impose an abortion litmus test on his vice presidential running mate, and made abortion his central issue. But Forbes was advised by his Iowa strategists that while the state's Republicans are pro-life, this is not a subject they like to hear about.

Bush's third debate was important--both nationally and for the Jan. 24 Iowa caucuses--not because he had committed spectacular blunder in his first two events but because media reaction to his performances on Dec. 2 and Dec. 6 had been so harshly critical. Politicians who had committed themselves to Bush with no fallback position were deeply concerned.

Former Iowa governor Terry Branstad, a relatively recent Bush endorser, had seen neither of the earlier debates but had heard and read the critical reviews. Consequently, he longed for a workmanlike performance by Bush Monday night. That was what he got.

Sen. Orrin Hatch assumed the role of political analyst after the debate, which is perhaps no less credible for him than running for president. "I thought Gov. Bush did well," Hatch volunteered to reporters. Why? Because he was "more relaxed."

What really relaxes George W. Bush, however, is getting off the debating stage. "That's my story, and I'm sticking to it," he cracked to reporters after the debate. Asked to evaluate his performance, the governor said: "Okay, I won." Indeed, he had survived the last debate of 1999 with his lead in Iowa and the nation intact, and his luster only slightly dimmed.

(c) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.