DES MOINES, Iowa George W. Bush and John McCain clashed last night over campaign finance, taxes and federal farm subsidies in the liveliest debate to date, which cast the two leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in sharply differing light.
The Texas governor challenged the Arizona senator on his signature issue, a call to reduce the influence of big money in political campaigns. “Here’s my worry with your plan. It’s going to hurt the Republican Party, John,” Mr. Bush said, adding it could amount to “unilateral disarmament” for the GOP.
But Mr. McCain shot back that there was no such thing as six-figure labor and corporate contributions in 1980. “How did Ronald Reagan get elected?”
The heated exchange was one of several between the two candidates the front-runner and his closest pursuer. Meanwhile, the other presidential hopefuls, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, publisher Steve Forbes, former State Department official Alan Keyes and former Reagan administration official Gary Bauer, sat by silently.
Early in the debate, Mr. McCain took his contrarian campaign to new heights by denouncing ethanol subsidies in the heart of farm country, prompting Mr. Bush to rise to ethanol’s defense.
“I’m going to tell you things you don’t want to hear: Ethanol is not worth it,” Mr. McCain said at the Des Moines Civic Center. “It does not help the consumer.”
The high-stakes gambit, coming from a candidate who has already written off Iowa to campaign almost full time in New Hampshire, was greeted by stony silence and a few boos from the hundreds of Republican faithful in attendance.
It also gave Mr. Bush whose performance in two debates earlier this month was criticized as lackluster and stilted the chance to vigorously stake out a position diametrically opposed to his most troublesome competitor.
“I support ethanol and I support ethanol strongly,” said Mr. Bush, drawing the first applause in the 90-minute debate. “And I support ethanol whether I’m here in Iowa or not.”
The exchange triggered a freewheeling debate about the wisdom of continuing to provide massive federal subsidies to the agricultural community for ethanol, which is produced from corn and other farm products and has long been touted as an alternative fuel to gasoline. Mr. McCain’s bold remarks were thought to be aimed at New Hampshire voters, who are considered more receptive to a reform-minded outsider who is unafraid to tackle government waste and special interests.
Mr. Forbes tried to strike a middle ground on the sensitive issue, saying he would test the merits of ethanol through 2007 and then, “if it can’t stand on its two feet, it ought to go.”
Mr. Keyes as is his custom with many topics cast the agricultural crisis in moral tones, likening the family farm to the cradle of American values. Mr. Bauer, a pro-life advocate, sought to steer the conversation to the question of agricultural trade with China.
“I will stop allowing China to play us for suckers,” Mr. Bauer said. He added that the Chinese are paying less for U.S. agricultural products than they were 10 years ago.
Such vigorous give-and-take was possible because the 90-minute session had fewer limits on interaction among the candidates. The first debate in New Hampshire had no way for the candidates to address one another. Last week’s debate in Phoenix limited how many questions each man could receive.
In one exchange, Mr. Bush refused to be drawn in when Mr. Bauer challenged him over abortion, as he has in past debates, asking whether the Texas governor would pledge to name a vice presidential running mate who is opposed to abortions.
Mr. Bush declined, saying first that it was presumptuous of him to talk about a running mate at this point, then saying his choice would be someone who was loyal to him, shared his “conservative views” and most importantly, is qualified to “serve as president of the United States.”
Mr. Hatch managed to get the biggest laugh of the night for the second debate in a row. In a preamble to a question directed at Mr. Forbes, he said he was getting ready to serve up a “home run” ball to the millionaire.
“That usually means get ready to guard your wallet,” Mr. Forbes interjected.
Without missing a beat, Mr. Hatch shot back: “I couldn’t even lift your wallet, Steve.”
The line brought the house down and drew immediate comparison’s to Mr. Hatch’s oft-quoted joke from last week’s debate in Phoenix. During that forum, Mr. Hatch joked that the Texas governor should be his vice president for eight years and then he would be ready for the highest office in the land.
Bush supporters lamented that their candidate remained mute instead of coming back with a witty riposte.
Another topic tackled last night was youth violence.
“I think the best accountability for people who break the law is jail, certain jail,” Mr. Bush said matter-of-factly.
Although many political observers give Mr. Keyes virtually no chance of winning the Republican nomination, an increasing number are grudgingly acknowledging his oratorical prowess. And Mr. Keyes’ small but devoted band of followers is particularly adept at voicing its opinions on Internet political Web sites.
Coming into last night’s debate, the third and last of the December Republican forums, there was considerable pressure on Mr. Bush to perform well in order to quell the nagging doubts of conservatives who worried he was not sufficiently battle-tested.
The looser format seemed to put Mr. Bush slightly more at ease than in previous debates. He was more willing to verbally joust with his rivals and even tried to get off a few jokes. At one point, after listening to Mr. Keyes describe the Texas governor, Mr. Bush joked: “At least he called me nice.”