Five Republican presidential candidates spent an hour promising lower taxes and improved schools and decrying the moral decay in America here tonight, but they barely mentioned the absent front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush--and did so only when prompted by a member of the audience.

For the second time in six days, Bush skipped a candidate forum here, staying in Texas to attend a ceremony honoring his wife, Laura. In his absence, Bush's rivals mostly sought to take the opportunity to boost their standing by concentrating on their own campaign themes, rather than criticizing one another.

It took the final questioner to change the tone. Noting that she preferred to put her query directly to Bush, who has raised about $60 million, the questioner wondered how anyone could stop the money spiral in politics. Forbes, who is financing his campaign from his own fortune, used the question to charge that GOP lobbyists and the party establishment "have made their choice" by backing Bush. "They want a coronation and not a real contest," he said.

Noting that Bush has skipped some campaign events in favor of fund-raisers, Forbes quipped, "Perhaps in the future at a forum like this, if we called it a fund-raiser he might show up."

Apparently concerned that voters in this state, which holds the nation's first primary, might feel he has begun to take them for granted, Bush sought and was given an interview on a New Hampshire television station two hours before the forum began.

He said he was "sorry I'm not there" but noted that he did not regret his decision to stay in Texas "to honor my wife." While insisting he has "a lot of work to do" and would campaign hard in the state, he nonetheless told his interviewers, "It seems that the people of New Hampshire accept my vision and want me to be the nominee."

Tonight's hour-long town meeting was held on the campus of Dartmouth College and was co-hosted by CNN and WMUR-TV. The format was similar to that used in Wednesday's session between Vice President Gore and former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, with the candidates taking pre-screened questions from the audience but not allowed to debate one another.

Participating with Forbes were Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has emerged as Bush's strongest challenger in the Granite State; Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch; former Reagan administration official Gary Bauer; and former ambassador Alan Keyes.

McCain has surged here recently with a message emphasizing campaign finance reform and attacking special interests and on the strength of an autobiography that has become a best-seller. The most recent polls here show Bush at or just above 40 percent, with McCain hovering around 25 percent and Forbes running third.

Tonight, McCain stuck closely to his standard script, taking every opportunity to show himself as someone willing to fight the establishment even in his own party.

Calling the tax code "a nightmare, a chamber of horrors for average citizens and a cornucopia of good deals for the special interests," McCain said there was no possibility for fundamental tax reform until the whole political system is cleaned up. "I will fight to the last breath I draw to eliminate the influence of special interests in the tax code and every other part of America, and I will not rest until I give the government back to you," he said.

Bauer portrayed himself as a scrapper with blue-collar roots, and at one point he sought to draw a distinction with the wealthy Forbes, since both candidates are competing for the support of social and cultural conservative activists.

Bauer said that, like Forbes, he has proposed a flat tax in favor of the current income tax system. But his plan, he said, favors average families, while Forbes gives undue breaks to corporations. "My plan is fairer for families," he said. "It's across the board, and I think it's the way the Republican Party has to go if we want to win the White House back."

But Forbes challenged Bauer's assertion and claimed credit for making the flat tax popular within the party by advocating its enactment in his first campaign four years ago. "When I ran four years ago, virtually every Republican denounced the idea of a flat tax," he said as others embraced it tonight. "So education works. Some are slower than others, but they're coming along."

Forbes apparently pulled some punches tonight, however. Minutes before the debate began, his advisers circulated a press release and supporting documents announcing that their candidate would attack Bush's record on taxes and spending in Texas. One adviser promised that Forbes would go on the offensive.

But during the forum, the candidate never mentioned the charges his campaign had trumpeted. After the debate, aides tried to explain that Forbes had not received the proper question to launch the attack.

Keyes used virtually every question to decry a "moral crisis" in America, arguing that government should stay out of social welfare policy because agencies had "botched it up" in the past. He advocated that faith-based institutions take up the task and, to provide the money, said he would get rid of virtually the whole "socialist" tax system. "I think what we need to do is take the sack off your back," he said.

In spite of his denunciations of government, Keyes warmed to a question about funding for space exploration. He said it was an "important function of government" to explore the "vast frontier sitting on our doorstep in space."

Hatch said he should be president because he has more experience than any other candidate, including the two Democrats. He cited his support for a variety of health care programs, including the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which Gore would now like to expand.

The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, defending gun ownership, also condemned the Clinton administration for what he charged was its failure to enforce national gun laws. Saying "we've got too many guns in the streets in the hands of criminals," Hatch said of the administration, "They're not enforcing the law."

McCain and Bauer attacked their party on health care. McCain said the influence of the insurance industry on the GOP, along with the power of trial lawyers in the Democratic Party, had made it more difficult to enact legislation to rein in health maintenance organizations.

Bauer said he was "very troubled" that Republican congressional leaders had fought against efforts to allow individuals to sue HMOs and said he opposes bureaucratic power, whether in government or the insurance industry. "I hope my party will get on the right side of being with the average Americans instead of with the big HMOs," he said.

McCain was tossed a question about whether he supported legalization of the medical use of marijuana. "Thank you, that is an excellent question," McCain said, "one I would prefer to duck."

Staff researcher Ben White in Washington contributed to this report.