Texas Gov. George W. Bush, fresh off his first presidential debate, fended off more questions today about his capacity to be president, saying his political record and popular support in Texas should help persuade voters across the country that he is more than up to the job.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who has mounted a serious challenge to Bush here in the state with the nation's first primary, used the morning after the six-candidate GOP debate in Manchester to show off some new supporters, including some converts who said they originally had supported Bush.
A Manchester Union Leader editorial endorsing magazine publisher Steve Forbes in the Republican presidential primary prompted the latest round of questions for the GOP front-runner. "Bush is a nice guy but an empty suit with no philosophical underpinning," publisher Joseph W. McQuaid wrote in today's front-page editorial.
Bush, at a morning news conference, dismissed the criticism and said he had overcome similar doubts during his first campaign for governor in 1994 and was confident the same would happen in his presidential campaign.
"I don't know if it was actually what we call an empty-suit syndrome in the '94 campaign but there was a little bit of that going on," Bush said. He predicted voters would cut through the "spin and obfuscation" and "make their judgment, just like the people of Texas made their judgment loud and clear."
Thursday's debate marked the opening round of an intensifying GOP campaign. All the candidates will debate again Monday night in Arizona after last-minute negotiations made it possible for McCain, who will not be in the state that day, to participate by satellite.
Bush rivals, with the exception of McCain, used Thursday's forum to criticize the front-runner, and Forbes advisers said today their candidate's performance signaled an effort "to turn up the decibel level" against Bush.
Forbes struck early this morning at a news conference. Apparently stung when Bush cited a 1977 column by Forbes that appeared to undercut Forbes's criticism of Bush on Social Security, Forbes today questioned why Bush had refused to answer definitively whether he had ever used illegal drugs as a youth.
"At least you knew what I was doing in my youth. I was writing magazine columns," Forbes said. "Others haven't been forthcoming about what they were doing."
Bush dismissed the Forbes attack. "I've talked about it all I'm going to talk about it," he said. He called on Forbes and others to conduct "a good solid campaign," but refused to say whether he thought Forbes was out of bounds. "That's going to be up to the voters to make their mind up," he said.
But Forbes retreated almost as quickly as he struck. In a telephone interview after his news conference, Forbes denied that he was attempting to raise the drug issue again.
Forbes said that on Thursday night and again today he had tried to mimic Bush's often-used line that when he was "young and irresponsible" he had done things that were irresponsible by referring to his 1997 column as written when he was young and irresponsible. "It was a throwaway line," Forbes insisted.
But the Forbes camp, mindful that Forbes's 1996 attacks on Robert J. Dole have left voters here wary of his tactics, appeared concerned about how the morning news conference would be interpreted. Campaign manager Bill Dal Col said, "Did he mean it as a personal shot? No, it was a joke line. But did he get carried away? Perhaps." Spokesman Greg Mueller said, however, it was "interesting that the candidate who said what he did in the '70s is off-limits is passing out material that Steve Forbes wrote in the '70s."
Forbes said he was confident voters here were capable of distinguishing between personal attacks, which he said he would avoid, and debate on issues. "The idea that you can have a campaign where you can't discuss issues undermines democracy."
Bush sought to navigate through another difficult issue today when he was asked why he refused to meet with the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay political organization, when he recently spoke to an organization of Jewish Republicans. "I think someone's sexual orientation is their private business," he said. "I don't want to politicize someone's private life." But he said he has "a record speaking out against bigotry" and that he welcomes "people of all walks of life in my campaign."
Bush refused to clarify one answer from Thursday's debate, in which he said he would "take out" weapons of mass destruction in Iraq if Saddam Hussein develops them. "He just needs to know I'm going to take them out," Bush said.
The Forbes-Bush exchange delighted McCain's advisers, who have long assumed that Forbes would launch a sharp attack on the front-runner that could play to McCain's benefit with voters.
In several informal surveys of voters after Thursday's debate, McCain emerged as the winner. The Boston Globe reported on a dozen Manchester voters who gave Bush poor marks and judged McCain and others as superior.
Today McCain sought to maintain the momentum that has seen him draw even with Bush here in New Hampshire at a big rally in Pembroke that featured former Bush supporters who now back the Arizona senator.
Some of them accused Bush of being "overly handled," but McCain, who has pledged to run a positive campaign, refused to echo those comments. "I do not," he said when asked whether he agreed with them. But he added, "I appreciate the comments they're making. I understand everyone has different reasons for their allegiance."