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 TIME on politics TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics - Storypage, with TIME and TIME

Bill Press analysis: Where was George?

By BILL PRESS

October 29, 1999
Web posted at: 6:44 p.m. EDT (2244 GMT)

Hasn't Gov. Bush ever heard of Woody Allen?

If 90 percent of success in life, as Woody Allen correctly maintains, is just showing up, then George W. Bush made a huge blunder Thursday night by not showing up for the Republican presidential town hall. His absence - or his cowardice - became the biggest, albeit unspoken, issue of the night.

Indeed, there are signs that Bush's absence and arrogance are starting to annoy independent New Hampshire voters. Even before the Dartmouth debate, CNN's latest poll showed Bush's once overwhelming lead in the Granite State has melted to a 39-27 point advantage over John McCain. By not showing up, Bush missed a great opportunity to stop the bleeding.

As for those five brave souls who did show? They all conducted themselves with dignity, grace and keen grasp of the issues.

Alan Keyes was his usual fiery self, pursuing his hopeless one-man crusade to abolish the income tax. But he proved his real backbone in disagreeing with popular positions on funding for NASA and paying our U.N. dues, as much as I disagree with him on the latter.

Orrin Hatch showed surprising spunk and easily held his own, even though he was the last one to jump into the race. He played up his experience, especially on children's health issues, and made a shameless, but light-hearted pitch for $36 contributions on his website. Shades of Jerry Brown!

Gary Bauer came across as knowledgeable, down-to-earth and, in fact, quite reasonable. He was also the only one eager to mix it up, blasting Republicans in Congress for being on the wrong side of the patients' bill of rights and chiding Forbes for including corporate tax breaks in his flat tax proposal.

Steve Forbes is, without doubt, the candidate who has most improved his performance on the campaign stage. Thursday night, he was relaxed, at times even eloquent, fired off his answers with clockwork precision, and spiced the whole evening up with his lively sense of humor. As when he chided fellow candidates for finally supporting the flat tax: "When I ran four years ago, virtually every Republican denounced the flat tax," Forbes grinned. "So education works."

But, in the end, the evening belonged to John McCain. He had the most to win, and he did. McCain was at once funny, angry, thoughtful and passionate. Time and again, he punched home the issue of campaign reform, which he owns, linking it to every other issue. He made it clear that he is strongly pro-life, but said it was time the Republican party accepted the fact that Republicans might disagree on this issue. And he won the biggest applause of the night by condemning fellow Republicans for spending billions on a new aircraft carrier the Navy doesn't need or want, while thousands of men and women in uniform are on food stamps.

Bottom line: McCain was the big winner; Bush was the big loser. Watch McCain climb even higher in the polls.

One final note about both town meetings. The real stars were not the candidates, but the good citizens of New Hampshire - who asked such intelligent, probing and relevant questions. How is it possible to get through two hours of debate without ONE question about a candidate's personal sex life? Only by having real people, not reporters, ask the questions.

Bill Press is co-host of CNN's "Crossfire."


ELECTION 2000

Bush's shadow looms as other GOP candidates air issues (10-28-99)

Clinton doubts he's 'a drag on the Gore campaign' (10-28-99)

Bill Press analysis: Bradley edges Gore (10-28-99)

Tucker Carlson analysis: Bradley picks the wrong heroes (10-28-99)

Smith drops out of presidential race (10-28-99)

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