ANALYSIS by Richard S. Dunham December 14, 1999

The GOP Debate in Iowa: Bush Doesn't Gain Much Distance
While not making any gaffes, George W. didn't exactly blow away his underdog rivals, either

George W. Bush gave the Pundit Elite what it was asking for: A rougher, feistier debate performance in Des Moines on Dec. 13. But even a heaping portion of Texas tough talk is unlikely to reverse the Lone Star State governor's comedown from anointed nominee to hard-pressed front-runner in an increasingly competitive race for the Republican Presidential nomination.

After trying to remain above the fray in his first two encounters with his five Republican rivals, a well-prepared Bush fought back on issues ranging from China trade to tax cuts to soft money. The Establishment favorite positioned himself as a non-Washington outsider, appealed to Iowa's powerful Religious Right bloc by naming Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher, and pandered to farm-state voters by wholeheartedly backing federal ethanol subsidies. Liberally sprinkling his answers with facts and figures, Bush even ticked off the metric tons of corn that Iowa farmers could sell to China if trade were liberalized (for more on Bush's economic agenda, see "From Bush and Gore, Hopelessly Conventional Economic Plans").

But despite George W.'s confident performance, some ominous signs emerged. Tops among them: Arizona Senator John McCain's decision to seek the votes of Iowa Republicans in the Jan. 24 caucuses. Maverick McCain, who has alienated some Iowans with his opposition to the federal ethanol program, has largely avoided the state in order to concentrate on the early primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina. At the Des Moines debate, however, McCain said he hoped that "a hardy band of brave souls will go out and vote for me." The problem for Bush: Much of McCain's support will come from Iowa's liberal-to-moderate Republicans, who otherwise would likely favor Bush.

RETORT OF THE NIGHT. The three GOP debates, which were held over an 11-day period, have now reshaped the race -- but not in the way the Bush campaign had hoped. True, he avoided a major gaffe. That was his top goal. But he failed to accomplish another goal: to set himself apart from the rest of the GOP field. While Bush seemed more animated, longshot Senator Orrin Hatch -- who zinged Bush in the Dec. 6 debate in Arizona -- once again seemed the figure with the most gravitas on stage in Des Moines. Hatch came up with the best retort of the night, telling millionaire publisher Steve Forbes "I couldn't even lift your wallet." But any votes gained by Hatch will most likely come from Bush's GOP mainstream base.

While Bush, McCain, and Hatch were campaigning for Commander-in-Chief, the other candidates seemed to be fighting for preacher-in-chief. Radio talk-show host Alan Keyes and ex-Family Research Council President Gary Bauer repeatedly condemned abortion as murder. Bauer blasted Bush for refusing to endorse an anti-abortion litmus test for his running mate.

But Bush won't concede the Religious Right support to his underdog competitors. When quizzed by NBC anchor Tom Brokaw about his choice of Jesus as his favorite political philosopher, Bush responded: "When you accept Christ as your savior, it changes your heart, it changes your life." That answer, while likely to cause Bush some trouble among non-Evangelical Christians, is sure to play well with the Protestant fundamentalist bloc that exerts considerable clout in Iowa and South Carolina.

The Iowa debate is the final Republican rhetorical encounter of 1999. In the next few weeks, the candidates will seek to mobilize the faithful in Iowa and New Hampshire. For Bush, the task has a new urgency. Instead of coasting to the nomination, it appears he'll have to earn it.

Dunham covers the White House and politics for Business Week

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

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