Texas Gov. George W. Bush's GOP rivals have found him harder to corner than Oscar De La Hoya, the boxer who lost his title belt last month after using an evasive strategy against his opponent.

Steve Forbes and Gary Bauer have been particularly vocal, accusing Bush of ducking the competition. The Bush campaign had resisted any plans to put their guy on the same stage as his Republican opponents until mid-January in Iowa, just days before the nominating contests begin. But this week, Bush reversed course and announced that he would attend a Dec. 2 candidates forum sponsored by WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H.

Still, Bush will skip forums in New Hampshire this Friday and next Friday. But he won't be skipping New Hampshire. He will campaign there at week's end--that is until the night of the debate, when he will dip over to Vermont for a campaign fund-raiser.

"Governor Bush's decision to duck debates in New Hampshire this month is wrong," Forbes said. "Is Governor Bush afraid the American people will find out what each candidate stands for? 'Don't ask, don't tell' is no way to run a presidential campaign. The American people deserve better."

Bush's reluctance to debate hasn't hurt him much with New Hampshire voters. But it hasn't helped him either. A Zogby International poll puts his support at 40 percent in the state, about where it has been for months. The big mover is Arizona Sen. John McCain, whose support has steadily risen. He is in second place, with 21 percent, followed by Forbes at 12 percent and Elizabeth Dole at 7 percent.

McCain spokesman Todd Harris credited McCain's extensive retail politicking--in the past eight months, he has spent 28 days campaigning in the state--for his improved showing.

Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said criticism from Bush's rivals had nothing to do with his decision to attend the December forum. "The governor has said all along that he was looking forward to debating," she said. "The primaries are moving earlier and earlier, and we wanted to make sure there was ample time for voters to see the candidates in debates."

Front-Loading the Calendar

Indeed, the primaries and caucuses are moving earlier and earlier.

Iowans could not bear to hold their caucus just one day before the New Hampshire primary. So, state officials decided that instead of caucusing on Jan. 31, they would do it Jan. 24.

Not since 1980, when the Iowa caucus was on Jan. 21, has the contest been held so early. Complicating the picture this year is the fact that at least 10 other states plan to hold primaries or caucuses before the first Tuesday in March, the window once reserved for Iowa and New Hampshire. And, of course, mega-state California has moved its date up to March 7, the same day as New York and several other states.

Iowa had planned its caucus for Feb. 21 but kept moving it forward as other states moved their contests earlier and earlier. The last straw came when New Hampshire moved its primary to Feb. 1, instead of Feb. 8, as Iowa had urged it to do. To protect its leadoff status, Iowa Democrats and Republicans agreed that the state's caucus should be moved to Jan. 24.

"It's a difficult thing, and it's a terribly inconvenient thing," Iowa GOP Chairman Kayne B. Robinson told Iowa reporters last week.

The Democratic National Committee approved Iowa's and New Hampshire's dates last Friday. The Republican National Committee does not require states to seek approval for setting the dates of GOP contests.

Officials from both parties have expressed concern about the front-loading of the calendar. As it is, about three-fourths of the delegates--and probably the nominations on both sides--will be decided by March 7. DNC spokesman Jenny Bachus said the DNC will hold on Nov. 20 the first of a series of meetings about how to fix the front-loading problem for the 2004 election.