- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 1999

PHOENIX Republican presidential rivals got their first chance to grill front-runner George W. Bush directly last night in nationally televised debate, but the Texas governor easily fended off the challenge and offered a determined, optimistic rationale for the goals of his administration.
“I’ve got a record of reform in Texas, and I’m going to take it to the White House,” Mr. Bush said.
The much-anticipated debate format that allowed the candidates to question each other face to face fizzled somewhat when put to the test, in part because the rules prevented any one candidate from being asked more than one question per round.
Thus the forum presented moments when, for example, Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch was left to question former ambassador Alan Keyes both men registering in the low single digits in the polls. At other times, the candidates used their questions seemingly to remind viewers of their own positions on issues, rather than pressing for answers from their rivals.
Most of the questions and answers were painfully polite.
Long-shot candidate Gary Bauer drew the first question for Mr. Bush and accused him of favoring a “Clinton-Gore” approach to trade relations with communist China, despite religious persecution and other civil rights abuses in that nation.
“You know how to insult a guy,” Mr. Bush joked before forcefully rejecting the premise.
“I believe competitors can find common ground,” Mr. Bush said. “You’ll be amazed, Gary, at how soon democracy will come” if the United States opens its markets to China.
When Mr. Bauer pressed Mr. Bush about atrocities in China, the governor replied, “I agree with you that forced abortion is abhorrent. But if we turn our back on China and isolate China, things will only get worse.”
Publisher Steve Forbes, who has been the most critical of Mr. Bush, got the second shot at him and asked what he would do to lower oil prices in the United States.
“I would encourage gas exploration,” Mr. Bush responded. “Governments don’t control the price of oil, as you know. You’re focusing on the supply side. I think we need to wean ourselves from foreign oil.”
When the front-runner was finished answering, Mr. Forbes said politely and quietly, “Thank you.”
The only candidate who wasn’t on the stage at the historic Orpheum Theatre in downtown Phoenix was the one who arguably has the most to lose in Arizona’s primary home-state Sen. John McCain, who debated via satellite from Boston so he could continue campaigning today in New Hampshire. Mr. McCain is in a dead heat with Mr. Bush in Arizona, which holds its primary Feb. 22. Mr. McCain used most of his opportunities last night to promote his proposals for campaign finance reform.
“I want to reform government,” Mr. McCain said. “I can’t do that until we reform this broken campaign finance system.”
One of the few departures from an evening of overall decorum was when Mr. Hatch accused Mr. Bush of not having the credentials to be president.
“I really believe you need more experience before you can become president,” Mr. Hatch told the governor. “I should be president, you should be vice president with me and boy, you’ll be a great president after eight years.”
Afterward, Mr. Hatch said Mr. Bush is a “fine man” but he’s worried that the Texas governor won’t measure up in a debate with Al Gore if the vice president receives the Democratic nomination.
“I’m worried about the debate,” Mr. Hatch said. “I hope it doesn’t come to that. If George Bush is our man, I’ll be there with him. But let’s face it, four years as governor, I’m not sure that’s enough experience.”
Mr. Bush didn’t have time to respond on stage, but afterward his spokeswoman, Mindy Tucker, said, “He’s the governor of a large state with an outstanding record of accomplishments that is translatable to be president. He knows how to lead.”
During the debate, Mr. Bush again defended his proposed $483 billion tax-cut plan that would cut the tax rate for the lowest wage earners from 15 percent to 10 percent.
“The Republican party often times is associated with the big and the rich,” Mr. Bush said. “We need to be associated with the working people and I’ve got a plan to do that.”
Mr. Hatch, who is running for president and re-election simultaneously, repeated his call for a Republican bus tour with all the candidates because the debates have been “too boring.”
While the debate ostensibly was part of Arizona’s primary, with a live audience of about 1,300, CNN officials were hoping it would reach about 1.5 million households nationwide.
Under the format of the debate sponsored by CNN, the candidates were questioned for the first half of the program by CNN anchor Judy Woodruff, White House correspondent John King and senior political correspondent Candy Crowley. Those questions focused on educating and raising children, taxes and government spending, and foreign affairs.
Then, unlike previous debates, the candidates were allowed to query each other directly. The rules permitted each candidate to be asked only one question per round by a rival to avoid them “ganging up” on any one candidate.
For his part, Mr. Bush used his first question to ask Mr. Hatch what he would do to bring Hispanic-Americans into the Republican party. Mr. Hatch congratulated Mr. Bush on his efforts to do just that.
“You’re one of the Republicans who has really reached out to women and minorities,” Mr. Hatch said.
Some of the questions by the candidates were aimed at promoting the views of the questioner, such as when Mr. McCain asked Mr. Hatch if he supported a permanent moratorium on Internet taxes, a concept Mr. McCain has been touting.
“I really do,” Mr. Hatch agreed. “I’m worried about the almighty hand of the federal government oppressing the Internet.”
Mr. Bauer said after the debate that he hoped future debates would include more of candidates questioning each other.
“I felt like we had some real good exchanges,” Mr. Bauer said. “I don’t think their questions were softball’ at all.”

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