Steve Forbes led a concerted assault on absent Texas Gov. George W. Bush tonight, as four Republican presidential candidates debated in the opening skirmish of the Arizona primary campaign.

Forbes, who won Arizona in 1996 over Robert J. Dole and Patrick J. Buchanan, accused Bush of learning all his policy positions "off the TelePrompTer" and believing that "government should guide our future." Bush, he said, "wants Washington to be the catalyst on school reform," not individual parents. He also repeated his assertions that Bush had raised taxes in Texas and pushed up state spending at twice the rate of the Clinton-Gore administration budget increases.

When columnist Robert D. Novak, one of two moderators of the televised, hour-long debate on the Arizona State University campus, asked the four what they would ask Bush if he were present, conservative talk show host Alan Keyes said he wouldn't address any question to Bush "because he doesn't want to talk to us."

Arizona Sen. John McCain said he would ask Bush to join McCain's effort to pass comprehensive campaign finance law reform. But Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch replied that if McCain's bill, banning unrestricted "soft money" contributions to the political parties, ever became law, "we would not have a Republican Party two years later." Hatch said it was only the soft money gifts that enable the GOP to match the voter turnout efforts of organized labor for the Democrats. McCain later said corporate chiefs recognize that soft money solicitations are nothing more than "a political shakedown."

That was the only criticism encountered by McCain, a 17-year veteran of Arizona politics, who is running even with Bush and well ahead of the others in early polls for the Feb. 22 Arizona contest.

Bush, on the other hand, was the target of frequent gibes, with Forbes being the most aggressive in challenging the Texas governor's conservative credentials. He said Bush's suggestion that the Social Security retirement age might have to be raised was "typical of Washington--make a promise and find a way to retract." He charged that Bush has "put nothing on the table, only vague ideas" on health care. And he said he was "disappointed Bush did not take a forthright attitude toward human rights in China" when he spoke on foreign policy last week.

All four of the aspirants said international financial assistance to Russia should be suspended until the bombing of civilians in Chechnya ends, and all four echoed Bush's comments in an earlier TV interview today in praising Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative stalwart, as the model for the kind of person they would place on the Supreme Court if given the chance. Keyes and Forbes also put Justice Clarence Thomas in that category, and Hatch threw in Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and the historical figure John Marshall as well.

Bush declined the invitation to tonight's debate because, he said, he had promised that his first debate would be in New Hampshire on Dec. 2. He has promised to come to Arizona four nights later for another debate.