Send in the clowns

George W. Bush's presidential debate debut turns into a genuine snoozefest.

Published December 3, 1999 5:04PM (EST)

Media hordes converged on the plush studios of television station WMUR Wednesday night to witness
the first debate featuring all six Republican presidential candidates, including
(gasp!) front-running Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Before any of us could even catch a glimpse of Bush, however, or even of Arizona Sen.
John McCain,
who has suddenly reached a statistical dead heat with Bush in local polls,
or quintillionaire publisher Steve Forbes, who has slowly been unloading a barrage of
negative ammo against Bush, a surprise presidential candidate and outspoken pro wrestler
(!) suddenly emerged to provide us with a respite from politics as usual.

It wasn't who you think, though. It was a bald, bearded, beefy, possibly deranged Nashua
resident calling himself "Lobsterman."

Lobsterman wrestles in the All-Star Wrestling Association, "right here in New Hampshire," but
for some reason security wouldn't let him into the building. It's quite possible that the
reason Lobsterman was barred from the occasionally lively if frequently meandering Q-and-A
session is that the role of designated nutjob was already taken. Commentator Alan Keyes
seems to have that role pretty-well nailed down by now. I'll be sparing here because he quite
obviously is in the midst of some serious psychological breakdown. It's hard
to believe that his friends and family have yet to stage an intervention.

The candidate cattle call hadn't even ended before Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch decried its format
as guaranteeing a "stilted" and "boring" outcome. Hatch's assessment was generally correct,
as the strict rules -- dictated by the front-running Bush -- were prohibitive enough for
ABC News to pull out.

Fox News Channel and its bureau chief Brit Hume stepped in to fill the void, however. He and
WMUR's Karen Brown provided lively questions that brought a little life to the forum's leaden
format, which consisted of six questions plus a follow-up for each candidate, with brief time
limits signified by the ringing of an annoying ice cream bell.

They asked Christian conservative Gary Bauer how he hoped to outlaw abortion when his
position seemed to be "at odds" with the will of the American people. "I don't think it's at
odds with the majority," Bauer said, "but I must tell you that if it was it wouldn't make any

They asked McCain repeatedly about his legendary temper, and why "those who know
you best seem to like you least."

"You know, a comment like that really makes me mad,"
McCain joked, before credibly explaining that anyone who favors keeping the "status quo" in
Washington shouldn't like him.

They had the candidates discuss taxes, health-care reform, foreign policy and Social
Security in addition to more arcane subjects like Internet regulation and "air rage." The
answers were concise and a smidgen of a tad illuminating. But the format Hatch aptly deemed
too "structured" guaranteed that the result -- especially with the long-awaited, Beckettian
appearance of Bush -- slid into a tremendous anticlimax.

They all wanted fewer taxes. They all decried the decline of the U.S. military. They all hoped
to achieve a balance between the unfettered freedom of the Internet and protecting society
from its potential evils. The lack of give-and-take allowed each man to stick to his mien,
even if all they had to back up their claims were assertions that they were who they were
telling us they were.

For those just tuning in, the candidates see themselves in the following way: Bush a warm,
uniting leader of the second-largest state in the union; McCain a charming tough guy with
foreign-policy expertise; Hatch the quintessential senator who knows how to get things done;
Forbes an outsider businessman with bold plans; Bauer a pro-life conservative; Keyes a
brilliant, outraged, articulate exemplar of morality.

Hume and Brown asked tough questions, but the candidates were more often than not able to
stick to the subjects they wanted to discuss. A few times, Hume and Brown followed up by
pointing out that a candidate hadn't really answered their question, after which the
candidate took his 40-second follow-up to dodge the tough part of the question once again.
Asked if he had sufficient "knowledgeability" of world events, Bush eased into a discussion of
his "leadership," which he said was confirmed by his overwhelming reelection victory last
year. He segued into his message about "reach(ing) across racial lines," repeating the
questionable figure that he garnered "50 percent of the Hispanic vote and a significant part
of the African-American vote," I'm-a-uniter-not-a-divider, bladdy-blah,

Media sharks hoping for Bush's blood to hit the water left disappointed. Though Forbes
continually labeled the tax plan Bush introduced earlier this week as "small and inadequate"
and more of the same "Washington-based, politics-based" business as usual, he laid off the
intimations he's been making in the last few weeks that the front-runner isn't intellectually
up to the task of being leader of the free world. Bush noted that while the Forbes camp sees his tax-cut plan as too timid, others see it as too big, "which leads me to believe that I must be doing something right."

And though Bush took a moment to try to put to rest rumors that his surrogates have been
bad-mouthing McCain upon his orders, asserting that McCain is a "good man" and a "good
friend," Bush did -- for the first time -- go a teeny bit negative. In response to Forbes'
accusation that his willingness to discuss raising the Social Security retirement age from 67
was a betrayal, Bush trotted out a statement Forbes himself made along those lines, albeit back in
1977. In the comfort of the press room, Forbes rejoined that in the '70s he was "writing
magazine columns," as opposed to whatever the hell it was that
Bush was doing during that time.

The only moment in the entire night that seemed unscripted came after Forbes asserted that he
would need to have a "heart-to-heart" with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to see if
he truly buys into "the bogus economic theory that prosperity causes inflation."

Asked if he agreed with Forbes, McCain said that as president he would not only reappoint
the chairman but "if Mr. Greenspan would happen to die -- God forbid -- I would do like they
did in the movie 'Weekend at Bernie's': I'd prop him up and put a pair of dark glasses on him
and keep him as long as we could."

It was that kind of night. A "Weekend at Bernie's" joke was the highlight.

The Republican candidates will next square off in Arizona on Monday.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Brit Hume George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.