Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain clashed repeatedly and often personally here tonight over taxes, government spending, school vouchers and campaign finance reform in a spirited 90-minute Republican presidential debate that reflected the high stakes in Tuesday's primary.
Bush, seeking to close the gap McCain has opened up over him in this state, accused his rival of drafting a tax plan that "Al Gore would have written." McCain immediately fired back, "If you're saying I'm like Al Gore, you're spinning like Bill Clinton."
The debate marked an escalation in the competition between Bush and McCain, the two leading Republican candidates here in New Hampshire, as each sought to paint the other as unfaithful to conservative principles.
McCain charged that Bush's education proposal gives too much power to "nameless, faceless Washington bureaucrats," while Bush claimed that McCain's fiscal program leaves too much money in Washington, where he said it could be wasted on new programs. But McCain said that demonstrated Bush's view of the president as "a hapless bystander."
Much of the focus tonight was on the top two candidates--a situation that clearly irked some of the other candidates on the stage. But magazine publisher Steve Forbes, former State Department official Alan Keyes and former Reagan administration official Gary Bauer took every opportunity to challenge Bush, McCain and one another as they jockeyed for advantage on Tuesday.
Forbes in particular sought to capitalize on his second-place finish in Iowa to become the conservative standard-bearer in the Republican nominating contest by attacking Bush from the right. But Bauer and Keyes elbowed their way into the arguments by stressing their conservative credentials on abortion and foreign policy.
The final debate before the primary saw both McCain and Bush called on to defend their antiabortion credentials. McCain in particular found himself on the defensive for a remark he made earlier today. Asked what he would advise his teenage daughter if she said she was pregnant, McCain first suggested the decision about what to do was hers, then later said he and his wife would make the decision.
Keyes charged McCain with "a profound lack of understanding" about the moral issues involved. "I am proud of that pro-life record and I will continue to maintain it," McCain said. "I will not draw my children into this discussion."
But late in the debate he returned unprompted to the question, this time far more indignantly. "I've seen enough killing in my life," said McCain, a Vietnam prisoner of war. "I know how precious human life is and I don't need a lecture from you."
Bush also was asked about an issue that has continued to dog him through this nomination contest. In response to a question about how he would word a two-sentence addition to the Constitution banning abortion, he replied, "It would be that every child, born and unborn, should be protected in law," he said. "And every child should be welcomed in life."
But he added, "I believe it's important for our party to maintain our pro-life position. I believe it's important for the next president to recognize good people can disagree on this issue."
Bauer found Bush's abortion answers inadequate and attacked him for saying last week that the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision was "a reach" constitutionally. "A reach? A reach, Governor? . . . It's a darn sight more than a reach, it's a national tragedy."
There were lighter moments as well, such as when Bush turned to Keyes to ask a question and said with a grin, "What's it like to be in a mosh pit?"
"Actually, it was kind of fun," replied Keyes, who had leaped into a mosh pit at a rally Sunday night in Des Moines.
But even that topic provided an opening for another testy accusation from Bauer, who charged that the music at the Keyes rally was by a group that was "anti-family" and favored by "the killers at Columbine."
Tonight's debate was sponsored by CNN and WMUR-TV in Manchester and was moderated by CNN's Bernard Shaw and WMUR's Karen Brown.
Forbes sought to undermine Bush's record as Texas governor, saying Bush has allowed government spending to grow rapidly, that his tax cuts were illusory and that Texas's record on SAT scores has plummeted.
"So many half-truths, so little time," Bush quipped, and then set out to rebut the charges. State spending, adjusted for population growth and inflation, has slowed, he said. Public schools "are meeting the challenge" and the state has enjoyed two tax cuts during his tenure.
He said the people of Texas had "looked at the real facts" when they reelected him by a landslide in 1998.
McCain, who has made tightening the campaign finance laws the centerpiece of his campaign, attacked Bush for refusing to renounce "soft money," the huge donations to parties from wealthy individuals, corporations and labor unions.
Looking ahead to the general election, McCain said, "When I'm in the debate with Al Gore, I'm going to turn to Al Gore and I'm going to say, 'You and Bill Clinton debased the institutions of government in 1996.' . . . And, George, when you're in that debate, you're going to stand there and you'll have nothing to say because you're defending this system."
Bush told McCain, "John, I don't appreciate the way you've characterized my position. I'm for reform. I sure am." But, Bush said, he wants to make sure that the GOP is not unfairly penalized by giving up corporate contributions while labor unions continue to spend lavishly.
Bush and McCain made their differences over tax cuts centerpieces of their campaigns in New Hampshire and used tonight's debate to press their cases. Moderator Shaw put McCain on the defensive by asking him to rebut charges by Bush and others that his tax plan "looks too much like Clinton's."
"President Clinton's looks too much like mine," McCain quipped before launching into a warning about the "ticking time bomb of Social Security." McCain said at many of his 103 town meetings, "People in New Hampshire are telling me, Senator McCain, save Social Security, put some money into Medicare and pay down that debt."
Then in an effort to counter criticism that he is using Democratic arguments to attack Bush, he added, "I think it's conservative in good times to put money into Social Security; it's conservative to pay down the debt."
In the face of new projections by the Congressional Budget Office that the non-Social Security surplus over the next decade could be almost twice as large as previously estimated, $1.9 trillion rather than $1 trillion, Bush said there was plenty of money to do both.
"If the money is left in Washington, it's going to be used for spending," Bush said.
But McCain accused Bush of seeing the president as "a hapless bystander" to Congress's spending whims. "An active president of the United States--i.e., me--will veto bills and threaten to shut down the government to make them spend less money," he said.
Both McCain and Bush favor school vouchers, but McCain said he would pay for his plan by eliminating oil, gas, sugar and ethanol subsidies. "You want to use funds from public education," he said. "I don't want to take funds from public education, I want to take it from the subsidies that you support."
Bush in reply said McCain supports using federal education money for failing schools "without any knowledge as to whether or not children are learning."
McCain drew a critical question early in the debate about an ad he is running here that claims he "knows the world better" than any other candidate in the race. He was asked whether he was implying that the others would be "lesser leaders."
"It's neither the intention nor the implication of the ad," he replied, adding, "The ad states clearly what I believe, and that is that I . . . am the best prepared to lead this nation in the next century in very dangerous times."
Amid the contentious intra-party squabbling, the Republicans found common ground in their condemnations of Clinton and his behavior as president.
"The people of this country are suffering from Clinton fatigue, and it's because they want someone who will look them in the eye and tell them the truth," McCain said.
Staff writer Ben White contributed to this report.