In what was undoubtedly the biggest event on the Arizona State
University campus all year, the Arizona Cardinals came from behind to
defeat their division rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, at Sun Devil Stadium Sunday to keep their slim NFC East playoff hopes alive. In what may have been
the second biggest event of the day, the candidates for the Republican
presidential nomination met at ASU's Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium for
the third GOP presidential debate of the year.
Like the Cardinals-Cowboys game, the event was without its star
attraction. Both starting quarterbacks -- the Cardinals' Jake Plummer and
the Cowboys' Troy Aikman -- were not on the field Sunday. Also noticeably
absent Sunday night was GOP marquee attraction George W.
Bush, apparently still recovering from a rough weekend in California,
sketching out his foreign policy at the Reagan
Library and heavy-duty fund-raising. "Where's Bush?" screamed a member of
the audience, as the crowd erupted in applause. Former Reagan policy
advisor Gary Bauer was also absent, though not as many people seemed to
Hometown favorite John McCain, who has represented Arizona in Congress
since 1982, finds himself in a predicament similar to that of his hometown
football team. Both need to have a month of great performances to make sure
they're still in the hunt come January. While McCain has enjoyed a recent
surge in polls in New Hampshire and even Iowa, where he's not even
competing, the next six weeks are pivotal to the McCain campaign.
Asked to articulate what winning the Arizona primary means to the campaign, the senator's
communications director Dan Schnur joked, "It means we won New Hampshire
and South Carolina."
Indeed, the primary comes at a pivotal juncture in the schedule,
nestled between South Carolina, a state with a large veterans
population where McCain has campaigned aggressively -- and the March 7
sweepstakes, a day in which voters in New York, California, Pennsylvania
and other key states will flock to the polls en masse. Arizona is one of only three states where McCain has campaign offices up
and running -- South Carolina and New Hampshire are the others. Schnur said
offices are on the way in Michigan and Washington, and a California
campaign manager has just been hired.
Arizona will also be key for Forbes, who beat Sen. Bob Dole here in 1996.
"After 1996, I truly view Arizona as my second home," Forbes told the
crowd, pockmarked with orange-shirted Forbes supporters.
But the home field advantage Sunday belonged to McCain, who routinely
received the most vigorous applause from the audience, and had the most
T-shirt advertising among the 2,000-plus people in attendance.
previous two debates, there were no knock-out punches, and candidates often
struggled to differentiate themselves from their opponents. Though it
didn't say so on the program, there was obviously a strict dress code
enforced at this debate. All four of the candidates wore dark suits, white
shirts and red ties.
Alan Keyes was animated, and easily the most natural public speaker in the
group. McCain was unpolished, except when he was talking about veterans
rights or campaign finance reform. Forbes looked typically awkward, and
alluded to his numerous policy plans like the physics teacher who keeps
telling you that all the answers to your questions are in the textbook,
while Sen. Orrin Hatch came off as spit-shined and professional, taking up the mantle
Lamar Alexander left when he pulled out of the race after the Iowa Straw Poll.
Despite the uniformity of dress, the four distinguished themselves in the
ways you'd expect. Keyes, always animated, wove something about
individual liberty and responsibility into every one of his answers,
whether the topic was Social Security, foreign policy, or who he would
appoint to the Supreme Court. Hatch beat up on the Clinton administration
every chance he got, while Forbes took routine swipes both at Bush and
Clinton. McCain, meanwhile repeatedly hit upon veterans issues and campaign
finance reform, promising to free the government from "the soft-money
The sound-bite of the evening came when moderator Robert Novak invited the
candidates to open season on George W. Bush. He asked the candidates, "If
there were a fifth podium and George W. Bush were standing behind it, what
would you want to ask George W. Bush?"
Laughter brewed as McCain was asked to answer first. "We've missed ya," he
joked, before calling on Bush to "join me in bringing government back to
the people," through the elimination of soft money. Hatch decided against
Bush bashing, choosing instead to tear into McCain over his recent campaign
finance reform bill. "Gimme a break. If McCain-Feingold passed, we would
not have a Republican Party two years later," he said, as McCain snickered
in the background.
Forbes seemed to relish the opportunity to tear into Bush, offering a
sweeping attack on the Texas governor's stance on education, health care,
Social Security, taxes and foreign policy. "When you put questions to
George W. Bush, you rarely get an answer," Forbes said behind his crooked
Church Lady smile. "Or you get something that obviously comes off
a Teleprompter or that his tutors have cued him on."
Keyes initially took a pass, saying the issue was about talking to the
American people, but took a swipe at Bush just moments later. "It seems to
me that we have an excellent secretary of the treasury [Forbes], an
excellent attorney general [Hatch] and an excellent secretary of defense
[McCain]. George Bush is not here, but since he'll say whatever words you
put in his mouth, he'd probably make a great press secretary," he joked to
thunderous laughter and applause.
The debate touched on six or seven issues from Social Security to health
care to gun control. Hatch bragged that he had been named man of the year not once, but twice,
by the National Rifle Association. McCain called for instant background
checks to "close the pawn shop loophole," and safety locks on guns, while
both Forbes and Keyes said the key was more vigorous enforcement of
But Sunday night's event had the feel of a pre-season game, a tune-up for
the next time the Republican candidates get together on Dec. 2 in New Hampshire, when
the Texas governor will finally share a stage with the men who appeared here
tonight -- all of whom are playing catch-up to the illustrious no-show.