Texas Gov. George W. Bush's rivals played bait-the-front-runner here tonight, but a confident Bush refused to play the game and emerged from his first presidential debate with the rest of the field still trying to bring him down.
If Bush did not stumble, however, as many of his rivals had hoped, he also did not dominate the 90-minute forum. Many of his answers were clipped or abbreviated and for the most part he stuck to a well-practiced script.
Given the hoopla that had built up around his first appearance on the same stage with his five Republican rivals, and questions about his command of the issues, Bush more than survived tonight's test. But he may face continuing questions about his depth and his vision for the country.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, whose recent surge in New Hampshire polls has made him Bush's principal rival for the nomination, did not follow along with his fellow candidates in attacking Bush. But he did offer a sharp contrast to the Texas governor, casting himself as the candidate who would shake up Washington, as opposed to Bush, who emphasized his desire to work collegially with the power structure now in place.
Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, called the debate "a good night" for the front-runner. "I think he helped himself," added Reed, "If anything, he looked in control."
Linda DiVall, who was a top adviser in Elizabeth Dole's campaign this year, agreed that Bush had more than survived the evening but said McCain too had helped his cause. For those inclined to support Bush, she said, "There was nothing to dislodge them from the idea that he is a winner."
But she said that in mostly stressing his record in Texas, Bush may have missed an opportunity to sketch out a broader vision of a Bush presidency. "People may be looking for a little more of a global perspective, and I think McCain delivered that," she said.
Tonight's debate proved more lively than many political analysts--and campaign advisers--had predicted. From the opening question until the closing statements, Bush's rivals tossed barbs his way about taxes, Social Security and abortion.
There were few dramatic moments and no tense or angry encounters. With a few exceptions, the candidates were generally polite even as they taunted Bush for failing to appear at three other forums over the past month.
As a result, tonight's debate, the first in what will be a series of encounters among the candidates, is not likely to change the shape of the race and may have served to reinforce the competition between Bush and McCain, with the other four struggling to gain a following.
But in surviving, Bush rarely took command of the stage, showing a reluctance to venture far from comfortable territory. Coming debates may test him more.
Magazine publisher Steve Forbes proved to be the most aggressive and persistent critic of Bush, a role that has long been expected of him this year, accusing Bush of timidity on tax cuts and betrayal for considering a further rise in the retirement age.
But in his opening response tonight, Bush attempted to put Forbes in his place, reading from a 1977 column Forbes wrote recommending an increase in the retirement age if necessary to preserve the Social Security system. It was a signal that if Forbes begins a barrage of negative ads against Bush, the front-runner is prepared to respond quickly and aggressively.
Forbes played the role of Washington outsider, hoping to stoke support among grass-roots conservatives for a campaign that has struggled to grow significantly beyond his effort of four years ago. His endorsement by the Manchester Union Leader, which was announced as the debate was underway, may help him some in this state.
Former White House official Gary Bauer, however, sought to squeeze Forbes from the right, criticizing the publisher as often as he attacked Bush. Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch struggled to demonstrate his rationale for seeking the presidency, while former ambassador Alan Keyes proudly displayed his credentials as a "moral conservative," a scourge on the rest of the field and a dispenser of some of the strongest rhetoric of the night.
Perhaps befitting his emergence as Bush's principal rival, McCain came under criticism tonight as well, but mostly from the two questioners, Brit Hume of Fox News and Karen Brown of WMUR-TV. Both pressed him about his temperament and his lack of support among his colleagues in the Senate and some prominent politicians in his home state of Arizona.
McCain largely tried to laugh off the questions but also used them to drive home his message of reform. If the voters want the Washington status quo to continue, he said, "I'm not their guy." He promised to rid the capital of special interests and "break some china" in the process."
But twice he offered veiled criticism of Bush. The first came when he indicated that his tax cut plan is fully paid for within current budget constraints and that he is prepared to cut spending to pay for it. Earlier today he said Bush's tax plan may be based on overly optimistic economic forecasts.
The other was more direct, coming in a declarative statement that concluded his closing statement. For those voters wondering or worrying about Bush's preparation to assume the nation's highest office, McCain said, "I am prepared to be president of the United States." That no doubt foreshadowed the contest to come as McCain attempts to build on his support here in New Hampshire and export it to other early primary states.
Bush offered a clear contrast, repeatedly asserting that he is uniquely equipped to lead and that he would end the "rancor" in Washington by uniting rather than dividing people. "I was overwhelmingly reelected because the people in my state realized I know how to lead and I've shown good judgment." That has been the trump card Bush has played from the beginning of the contest, that his political success in the nation's second-biggest state should reassure Republicans that he has the best chance of anyone in the race to win back the White House.
That message got him through his first-ever presidential debate tonight, and his rivals will need to find some other way to force him to stumble if they hope to stop him.
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.