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ANALYSIS by Richard S. Dunham December 3, 1999

After the GOP's First Debate, It's a Three-Horse Race
John McCain gained ground on front-runner Bush, and Forbes is hanging tough. The others: Also rans

Texas Governor George W. Bush had hoped to establish a "stature gap" from the rest of the GOP field in the first debate featuring all of the Republican Presidential contenders. That didn't happen during the Dec. 2 clash in Manchester, N.H., but it wasn't because of any gaffe by Bush. It was because of a boffo performance by the onetime dark horse who's fast becoming Bush's leading rival: Arizona Senator John McCain.

While the GOP also-rans aimed rhetorical darts at Bush, reformer McCain remained above the fray all evening. He showed a nimble grasp of issues from the Federal Reserve to high technology to international affairs. He effortlessly dissected the violence in the Caucasus and outlined his vision for restoring American military readiness.

But what made him stand out from the pack most of all was his sense of humor. Asked about the future of Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, McCain said he thought so much of the aging economist that not only would he reappoint him, but, should he die, he'd "prop him up and put a pair of dark glasses on him and keep him as long as we could," just like a scene in the movie Weekend at Bernie's. The conservative maverick also smiled through a series of pointed questions about his legendary temper, laughingly responding, "A comment like that really makes me mad."

RUSTY BUT WORKING. Still, while McCain scored points on style, most of the attention -- from voters and Republican rivals -- was focused on Bush. After months of delaying the inevitable, the front-runner finally met his five surviving GOP Presidential rivals in a debate. The result: an adequate performance by the Texas governor, who appeared a little rusty but did not make any major mistakes.

Bush, though unspectacular, was steady, serious, and relentlessly on message. That message: He is an experienced chief executive of a large state and a successful, pragmatic leader. He showed considerable grace under pressure -- boasting about his recently released tax-cut plan despite criticism from every foe that the plan was either too timid or based on faulty economic assumptions. "For some it's not enough, for some my tax cut is too big," said Bush, "which leads me to believe that I may be doing something just right."

Only one other candidate seemed even faintly Presidential. Magazine publisher Steve Forbes focused relentlessly on issues and surely will appeal to the Granite State's hard-core conservatives. Alone among the candidates, Forbes lambasted Greenspan for raising interest rates and ripped the government's antitrust case against Microsoft. His main target was Bush, whom he blasted seven times on issues ranging from capital-gains taxes (he'd eliminate them, Bush wouldn't) to taxation of e-commerce (he'd bar such taxation, Bush is mum). While Forbes was clearly well-informed, he seemed robotic at times. And he took a big hit when Bush uncovered an old magazine column written by Forbes that contradicted a Forbes attack on Bush's Social Security views.

"MASSA BUSH." Perhaps the best news of the night for Forbes was the endorsement he got from Manchester's Union Leader, the leading voice of the state's hard-right wing. That could help the New Jersey millionaire capture votes won four years ago by the paper's former favorite candidate, Pat Buchanan.

While the remaining three GOP candidates received equal time during the encounter, they didn't score many points. Social conservative activist Gary Bauer kept pecking away at Forbes, whom he sees as his major rival for Religious Right support. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch touted his experience but offered little vision for the future. And conservative talk-show host Alan Keyes assailed the media for racism, then played the race card when he said voters shouldn't "get down on our knees and thank Massa Bush." Others may remain on the ballot, but the Manchester debate made clear that it's now a three-candidate contest.

Dunham is White House and political correspondent for Business Week

EDITED BY DOUGLAS HARBRECHT _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

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