After a polite debate that revealed few major ideological divisions, the five Republican candidates who appeared on the same stage here tonight acknowledged they had something else in common: They thought Texas Gov. George W. Bush insulted the voters of New Hampshire by skipping the event.
Virtually all of the candidates left standing in the GOP race--Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, Sens. Orrin G. Hatch and John McCain, and Alan Keyes--showed up at the University of New Hampshire for a debate moderated by ABC correspondent Cokie Roberts. Conspicuously absent was the field's undisputed front-runner, Bush, who had been in New Hampshire during the day but left for a fund-raiser in Vermont tonight.
"High-tailed it," were the words Bauer used, saying Bush's actions were an "incredible insult to the people of New Hampshire."
"I think he was the big loser here tonight," said Forbes, who also used "insult."
Keyes was even more direct. With reporters gathered around him, Keyes spoke of the "arrogance being displayed by the Bush people," who apparently believe that money equaled "nobility" and that "somehow we all ought to bow down to him" as the governor marches toward the nomination.
The debate itself was far more civil, with only Bauer making one oblique reference to Bush. When Roberts repeated Bush's comment earlier today that there was room for disagreement on abortion rights, Bauer retorted: "Governor Bush's statement is nonsensical. I wish he was here so we could tell him about it."
The race for the Republican presidential nomination in New Hampshire is a contest to become the sole competitor of Bush, whose campaign's air of celebrity attracts crowds of hundreds while his opponents draw dozens.
Tonight, Bush's opponents had their best opportunity yet for broad public exposure in a debate broadcast statewide by New Hampshire Public Television and carried nationally on C-SPAN. But they revealed far more ideological similarities than differences.
All advocated some form of school vouchers and less of a federal role in education. All agreed that there is a value deficit in the White House and that voters are eager for moral leadership. All agreed generally that U.S. taxpayers cannot afford to subsidize foreign and Third World countries to improve their standard of living. All agreed with the Senate's vote to ban a late-term abortion procedure, and the candidates who addressed the issue more specifically said they would require running mates and judicial appointees to oppose abortion.
The biggest difference came on trade issues, with Bauer and Keyes arguing against normal trade status for China and Hatch and McCain arguing for it. Forbes said he would not renew the trade status if China continues to sell nuclear technology to rogue states.
"We do have to engage" China to encourage it to change repressive human rights policies, Hatch said.
Afterward, asked if any major differences between the candidates emerged, Forbes said: "On education, McCain has more of a Washington-oriented approach." During the debate, McCain described education inequality based on economic disparities as a "civil rights issue" and advocated merit pay for teachers, saying, "There's no reason why a good teacher should get paid less money than a bad senator."
Asked the same question, Hatch said there was a clear difference between him and McCain on campaign finance reform. Hatch characterized McCain's assertions that money has corrupted Washington as "bull."
And Bauer said the biggest gulf in ideology in the debate was between him and Forbes on Social Security. Forbes advocates private retirement savings accounts, which Bauer vehemently opposes in favor of the current system.
Campaign aides said Bush skipped the debate to fulfill a prior commitment to attend a GOP fund-raising dinner in Vermont, although he added a fund-raiser for his own campaign. He has agreed to debate the challengers on Dec. 2. a reversal of his plan to skip such forums until January.
State Republican committeeman Tom Rath, a Bush supporter, said there is no reason why the front-runner should attend numerous debates where he would be the focus of attacks by his opponents.
"The idea that he's afraid is ridiculous," he said, noting that Bush drew large crowds at events and spent much time answering questions from individual voters today. "He's going to do the requisite number of debates, but he's not going to do more than is necessary to do."
Answering questions at a fire station in Newport this afternoon, Bush said he supported the Senate vote Thursday to ban late-term abortions but added that there is room for disagreement on the issue of abortion.
This morning, McCain, who voted for the late-term abortion ban, portrayed himself as the rising candidate in the race. His campaign aides are ecstatic about polls showing that he has moved from 3 percentage points in February to 26 percentage points now, placing him a solid second to Bush. "We're trying to broaden this party out from just rigid doctrinaire issues," McCain said.
About 20 percent of those who voted in the 1996 GOP primary were independents, state officials said. State GOP Chairman Steve Duprey said of McCain: "Can he be competitive here in New Hampshire? Sure he can. He can make this into a real race."