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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Stuart Rothenberg analysis: The Arizona GOP debate

By Stuart Rothenberg

December 7, 1999
Web posted at: 12:26 p.m. EST (1726 GMT)

Texas Gov. George W. Bush was once again the focus of a GOP debate, and like last week's joint appearance in Manchester, New Hampshire, Bush emerged unscathed. But the governor didn't put to rest questions about his knowledge and intellectual depth, possibly adding to the pressure on him in future debates.

The CNN debate in Arizona had a different format than early GOP or Democratic debates, with the candidates allowed to ask each other questions. But while the format was supposed to bring about more heated exchanges, it produced mixed results, with some candidates asking "softball" questions to each other.

Bush was asked three questions by CNN journalists Judy Woodruff, John King and Candy Crowley. His answers to questions about education and taxes were good, and his response to a potentially troublesome question (from Woodruff) about the lessons he drew from a book about Dean Acheson was more than adequate.

In the second round, when candidates asked each other questions, Bush handled the initial question (from Bauer) about Most Favored Nation Status for China with confidence and sincerity.

But the governor seemed uncomfortable when Steve Forbes asked him how he would stop the rise in oil prices, which Forbes traced to production cutbacks among OPEC nations. Bush talked about more domestic exploration and about the increased use of natural gas.

Bush's closing remarks were better than his final statement in Manchester, though it wasn't nearly as smooth and natural as the final statements of Gary Bauer or John McCain.

During the debate, a number of the GOP hopefuls took shots at Bush, but once again the format made it difficult for the candidates to get into a political scrum.

Bush's performance is unlikely to quiet critics, and after watching the Texan during two debates and a number of big speeches, it is clear that he isn't (and probably never will be) a great speaker. He is strong in small groups and working people one-on-one, but he sounds stilted (and less sharp than he needs to be) when he gives a speech or reacts to media questions.

Still, it is hard to see how Bush really hurt himself in Arizona. Once again, he made no big mistakes, and he did at least as well as he did in New Hampshire on December 2nd - and probably even better.

Sen. John McCain appeared at the debate electronically, since he was in New Hampshire. Before the event, some observers thought that the Arizona senator would be hurt by his absence. But television viewers wouldn't have known that he was not in the studio if Judy Woodruff hadn't noted it, and McCain proved again that he is a strong performer in the debate settings.

McCain once again positioned himself as the reformer in the race, while Gary Bauer emphasized his version of conservative populism. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch talked about his accomplishments and experience in the Senate, while Steve Forbes once again criticized decisions made In Washington. Alan Keyes sounded his consistently conservative message about parental and individual choice.

But once again, the debate was really about George Bush. And once again, he probably did what he had to.


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Tuesday, December 7, 1999

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