Without Bush, GOP hopefuls attempt to make their mark

by Deborah Bernstein | 10/29/99 5:00am

Republican presidential frontrunner Texas Governor George W. Bush's absence at last night's town hall forum took a backseat to largely gentle debate over taxes, health care and campaign finance reform.

While magazine publisher Steve Forbes and former Reagan administration official Gary Bauer traded jabs over their competing flat tax proposals, Bush largely escaped criticism for skipping the debate to attend a ceremony in Texas honoring his wife.

While Arizona Senator John McCain -- Bush's closest competitor -- stayed away from any mention of the race's absent leader, the Forbes campaign criticized Bush's campaign priorities.

"Perhaps in the future at a forum like this, if we call it a fund-raiser, he might show up," Forbes said.

McCain, running second to Bush in most polls, emphasized campaign finance reform -- his signature issue -- as the solution to government problems, including tax and health care reform.

McCain said the tax code is a "nightmare because of a cornucopia of special interests" and that normal citizens are not represented in Washington.

The one candidate at the forum most experts say has a viable chance at catching Bush, McCain again pointed to special interests when he explained why he thinks it has been so difficult to accomplish health care reform.

"Why is it that we can't come up with a decent patients' bill of rights? The Democrats are gridlocked by special interests of the trial lawyers, the Republicans by the insurance companies and special interests. Until we reform this campaign finance system, we're not going to reach a conclusion," he said.

Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and former UN ambassador Alan Keyes rounded out the panel, presented by CNN and WMUR, and following Wednesday night's meeting of Democratic candidates vice president Al Gore and former Senator Bill Bradley.

While Forbes touted his position as a forerunner in the fight for a flat tax, Bauer said Forbes' proposal would allow corporations to escape payment.

"If you're going to have a flat tax, what you describe as income becomes all-important. And how you see America's wealth being created is all-important. My plan is fairer for families. It's across the board. And I think it's the way the Republican Party has to go if we want to win the White House back," Bauer said.

Health care improvement, the one contentious point from Wednesday night's Democratic panel, was again a prominent issue last night.

While several Republicans alluded to the Democratic candidates' sparring over funding health care with the surplus, they did little to delineate the specifics of their health care plans.

A proponent of health care reform, Hatch said he hopes to finance his campaign with one million people giving him 36 dollars, allowing him to equal the record-breaking total Bush has raised so far.

Bush's absence was noted by many, including moderator and CNN anchor Judy Woodruff, who announced at the top of the program that Bush had declined the invitation to attend the forum.

Bush told WMUR in an interview yesterday afternoon that he was missing the debate because he loved his wife and wanted to be with her when she received an alumni award at Southern Methodist University.

"My family is important to me, and I think the people of New Hampshire will recognize that," he said.

Issues of social policy like abortion and gay rights also permeated questions from the audience.

McCain stressed the need for Republican party to be accepting and open, though he said he is proud of the party's pro-life stance.

While Keyes said in a pre-taping question session that he felt homosexuality is an "abomination," Forbes told viewers he would not discriminate when hiring on the basis of sexuality.

Forbes said he would hire people who want to get the job done, and not make a political statement by filling a position.

The debate was momentarily interrupted by an anonymous woman protesting military spending. She was escorted out of Moore Theater.

After the debate, candidates applauded their performances, although Keyes denounced what he believes to be racism on the part of the media.

At a press conference following the forum, Keyes said audiences respond well to him and the press declines to ask him questions because they cannot get past his skin color.

Forbes' spokesman said he is beginning to think the "W" in George W. Bush stands for "Where's George" while a McCain spokesman touted the senator's ability to prove his presidential qualities.

Dartmouth Government Professor Constantine Spiliotes, who specializes in the American Presidency, said he thought the candidates held off from criticizing Bush and instead focused on themselves.

He said he felt all the candidates were eloquent and that they presented a wide spectrum of Republican views in the forum.

Spiliotes said that as health care reform packages emerged from the Democratic panel, tax reform debate came out of last night's forum as a differentiating issue between Republican candidates.

While Government Professor Lynn Vavreck said during the debate she felt the candidates were similar, press conferences after the forum made her think McCain presented a more grave, deep candidacy.

Vavreck said she feels McCain will benefit from a post-forum bump in the polls but that Bush's failure to attend will not directly hurt him.

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!