Texas Gov. George W. Bush had a mission in New Hampshire this week: to reassure voters that he cares about them and their state.

Bush, who has been blasted by his rivals, not to mention some New Hampshire voters, for skipping two debates and for not spending much time in the state, told one audience: "As we get closer to the elections, it's going to be a full-time presence."

While Bush's advisers have told reporters that he had previous commitments and denied that he avoiding sharing the stage with his GOP opponents, privately, some had acknowledged that there was no great desire to attend the debates, where he would be the focus of attacks because of his front-runner status.

At events today and Tuesday, Bush opened his stump speech with an unapologetic explanation for his absence at last week's debate.

Speaking before the Laconia Chamber of Commerce this morning, Bush referred to "a little bit of a flap here last week," and said, "Let me tell you something straightforward. My wife means more to me than anything. She was being honored as a distinguished alumna of Southern Methodist University. . . . There was no question as to where I was going to be and that was by her side thanking her and singing my praises to this great lady."

Later, at a news conference, Bush told reporters if some voters didn't think he made the right decision to "stand by my wife, there are other candidates that they can choose from."

When asked if he was surprised that Arizona Sen. John McCain has been gaining on him in New Hampshire polls, Bush said, "He's a good fellow. He's a formidable candidate. I expected there was going to be a contest in this state."

Bush assured voters he was not taking anything for granted in the state's Feb. 1 primary. He came early to several events and did a lot of what aides say he does best: traditional retail politicking--posing for pictures, kissing babies and grandmothers, and answering questions one on one with voters. At one point, he told a woman: "When you get in the voting booth, don't forget who came to ask for your vote."

No one is accusing Vice President Gore of not spending enough time in New Hampshire. After campaigning three days in the state last week, he was back again today, giving interviews and teaching a civics class at Merrimack Valley High School just outside Concord.

In a morning interview on CBS, Gore refused to back away from his impeachment-day assertion that Bill Clinton will be remembered as one of the best presidents in history. "There are some people today who think all these accomplishments and others will be eclipsed by the president's personal mistakes," Gore said on the new "Early Show." "Maybe they're right but I kind of doubt that."

Gore also used every opportunity to continue his now-daily assault on former senator Bill Bradley's plan to provide health coverage to 95 percent of Americans. "The controversy in the campaign these days is about the Bradley proposal that costs more than $1 trillion and wipes out Medicare," Gore charged during a call-in show on WEVO radio.

A telephone caller from Laconia complained to Gore about the "negative" tone of his campaign, but the vice president said he will continue pointing out policy differences with his Democratic rival. Said Gore: "If we can't talk about issues, then what are campaigns for?"

According to the latest Washington Post national poll, Bush continues to lead Gore in a hypothetical matchup 48 percent to 39 percent, and holds a similar advantage over Bradley. A new ABC News poll shows Bush maintaining a significant lead over Gore even with Patrick J. Buchanan in the race. Buchanan drew 8 percent of the vote, disproportionately from the Texas governor.

Meanwhile, Bush and Gore remain strong front-runners in their respective primaries, last weekend's Post poll found. Seven in 10 Republicans support Bush, who benefited from Elizabeth Dole's exit from the race. McCain also has picked up some support since Dole's departure, but still runs a distant second at 10 percent. The other GOP candidates linger in single digits.

Though Bradley is closing on Gore in some state polls, nationally he continues to trail the vice president among Democrats 30 percent to 58 percent, similar to his ratings in a mid-October Post poll.

Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.

CAPTION: George W. Bush talks to customers at Littleton Diner in New Hampshire.