Politics is not just about who fights whom. A lot can be learned from friendships, too.

Take one example from last night's Republican Party debate in Manchester, N.H. The tone was scrappy, but all of a sudden Texas Gov. George W. Bush was serving a cream puff to former Reagan administration official Alan Keyes: "Give us your thoughts about health care."

Bush had a follow-up, too, inviting Keyes to attack the current Democratic administration, if he wished, which he did.

Why would Bush coddle Keyes? Because two days earlier millionaire publisher Steve Forbes finished second behind Bush in the Iowa caucuses by appealing to disgruntled conservatives. Keyes was Forbes's nearest competitor for that group of voters. So here was Bush, building up his new friend, seeking his wisdom--and speaking volumes concerning his new concerns about a strengthened Forbes.

The Republican topics were familiar--taxes, abortion, trade, China, campaign finance reform. (There was one wild card: mosh pits.) But with five candidates all seeking a Granite State bounce, the debate was a study in shifting alliances and political bank shots.

The Democratic debate soon afterward was far simpler: a head-to-head fight between Vice President Gore and former senator Bill Bradley on subjects from health care and political money to negative campaigning and the frequency of weeping. Both debates were highly competitive. One was billiards; the other was boxing.

In previous GOP debates--and there have been many--the dynamic was plain. Everyone went after front-runner Bush, especially Arizona Sen. John McCain, his leading competitor in New Hampshire. Bush tried to sail above it all.

There were more angles last night. True, McCain was still aimed at the the lead dog, but Bush bounced it right back. There were, for example, exchanges over tax cuts and education reforms. Bush told McCain that Gore could have written his tax plan and that only "you and the vice president" don't like the governor's education proposals. McCain retorted: "If you're saying that I'm like Al Gore, then you're spinning like Bill Clinton."

This time, though, Keyes and his fellow conservative activist Gary Bauer turned their sights from Bush to Forbes, their chief competitor for votes on the right.

Both demanded yes-or-no answers from Forbes on issues that matter to many conservatives: would he immediately end normal trade status for China and withdraw the United States from the World Trade Organization? Forbes responded with complicated hedges, and his foes tsk-tsked with the sad-but-satisfied look of preachers uncovering new evidence of sin.

But Forbes was not interested in them. Emboldened by Iowa, he wanted a piece of Bush. In past debates, Forbes was in danger of vanishing from the stage. Often, he looked a bit like a man who had wandered into the wrong wedding reception, with no idea what the in-laws were bickering about. This time, he went after Bush guns blazing. He said Texas school scores are down. Texas tax cuts are phantom. Texas spending is up.

Bush answered, and he offered his landslide reelection as proof that the people of Texas know better. Again and again, Forbes interrupted. Bush looked peeved. Forbes grinned with excitement.

Bauer's attack on Keyes for diving into a traveling mosh pit offered one of the stranger moments.

It seems that the music by Rage Against the Machine was playing as Keyes allowed himself to be hoisted and pawed. Bauer wasn't entirely sure of the group's name, but he was quite confident it was the sort of music "the killers at Columbine" loved. "I was not morally responsible for the music that was playing," Keyes answered. And as he likes to do from time to time, he turned the question to race: Bauer's accusation was like saying "I'm responsible for the color of my skin."

"Nobody made you jump in the mosh pit," Bauer pressed onward. "Do you think that's consistent with the dignity of the president?"

"The real test of dignity is how you carry yourself through hard times," Keyes answered. "I leave it to the American people."

Then came the Democrats. Gore pounded Bradley in Iowa, winning by almost 2 to 1. The pundits have attributed Gore's victory to the vice president's newly aggressive style. It came up in the very first question, which sounded more like an indictment than a query.

Gore aggressively denied that he has been aggressive. It's not that he thinks there's anything wrong with Bradley, he insisted repeatedly. "I just don't see how you can vote for Ronald Reagan's budget cuts and then campaign like Robert Kennedy."

Bradley, on the other hand, tried to prove he is not some ethereal pacifist. He is, he explained, a tough man who also knows how to cry. Why, he said, he cried just the other day on the campaign trail, when he heard the story of a working family that can't afford health insurance.

Like Clint Eastwood in "The Unforgiven," Bradley acknowledged that he was once a man of violence, but all that is in the past. As a basketball legend, he grabbed other players when the refs weren't looking--and worse. "There are elbows that are thrown. There are blows that are thrown. That's part of the game. Politics should be different."

Not last night. The two Democrats have played some past debates like graduate seminars, bickering over the finer points of public policy. They have played some like Presidential Smackdown!

This was the latter kind. Near the end, you could almost see Bradley say to himself: Time to throw an elbow. Gore was poking, as he always does, at Bradley's health care proposal, saying it will destroy Medicare and leave piddly in its place. "I wonder whether . . ." Bradley began--and he seemed to pause ever so briefly. Then resume: " . . . you're running a campaign that says untrue things, whether you'll be a president who can win people's trust."

Gore looked soulfully toward the moderators. That's a foul, ref! "I haven't accused you of lying," he said. Nah. He wouldn't do that to a friend.