The nastiness that has marked the behind-the-scenes maneuvering for the Republican presidential nomination has mostly been hidden from the television-viewing audience during the GOP debates. During the last one -- held in Des Moines, Iowa, on Dec. 13 -- the candidates who appeared in your living rooms were all peaches and cream.
In the press room for post-debate spin, however, the candidates freely laid into one another. And since that time, as the D-Days of the Iowa caucus (Jan. 24) and New Hampshire primary (Feb. 1) have approached, the bombs have started to fly.
Thus, at Thursday night's free-wheelin' GOP debate -- held on the campus of the University of New Hampshire -- the candidates frequently found it difficult to contain the seething vitriol building up behind their generally pleasant salesman-like exteriors. It was clearer than ever before that they feel genuine animosity toward each other and, yes, even toward the media -- as personified by the debate's three questioners and moderator Tim Russert of NBC.
Generally, however, the snipes were targeted at the front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
The best line of the night came after Russert pressed Bush on his response in the Iowa debate that Jesus was his favorite philosopher. He asked the governor if he'd take the religio-pop expression "What would Jesus do?" with him into the Oval Office.
Bush walked right into a slam by kiddingly rejoining that he would "take the expression, 'Dear God -- help me,'" instead.
"So would we, Governor," said Christian activist Gary Bauer, who has throughout these debates revealed himself to be the pack's foremost debater, as well as one vicious little s.o.b.
"That's a little low blow," Bush said. "That wasn't very Christian of you."
"Touchi, touchi," said Bauer.
Nationally, the glib and goofy Bush has an overwhelming lead in polls. Here in New Hampshire, however, the race is much more competitive. According to the most recent temperature-taking -- conducted by the American Research Group from Dec. 29 to Dec. 31 -- Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain are getting stains from one another's sweat, with McCain barely ahead 36 percent to 33 percent, within the poll's 4-point margin of error.
In the Granite State, the other four candidates have been treading the water of their own irrelevance. Publisher Steve Forbes has 11 percent and commentator Alan Keyes has 3 percent, while Bauer and Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah are duking it out for Aunt Mabel's Nashua, N.H., supper club, holding steady with 1 percent apiece.
Thus, the candidates were cutting each other off, sniping, snarking, interrupting, feigning offense, and once -- need I even tell you that Keyes was involved? -- going after Russert. They frequently bickered like children.
McCain and Bush had already spent days sniping at one another for
their respective tax-cut plans -- with McCain saying that Bush
squanders the surplus on a budget cut targeted at the rich, and Bush
saying that McCain sounds like Al Gore. Bush is so eager to make tax cuts his raison d'être -- though I could swear just a few weeks ago education was his cause -- he even
one-upped his old man's most infamous quote, "Read my lips, no new
taxes," a 1988 campaign promise that Bush the elder of course broke.
"This is not only 'No new taxes,'" Bush said when pressed for a
pledge, "this is 'Tax cuts, so help me God.'" But McCain has been
trying to hang this pledge around Bush's neck as irresponsible and
immature. At the debate, he pressed Bush to affirm that his plan
wouldn't spent the entire budget surplus on a tax cut.
"Your plan does," McCain said.
"No, it doesn't," Bush countered.
"Yes, it does," McCain returned.
"'No, it doesn't,' 'Yes, it does,' 'No, it doesn't,'" Bush mimicked, thus ending the debate.
At another, somewhat more disconcerting moment, the pompous, proselytizing Keyes wouldn't cede the floor to moderator Russert, asserting after one of the more chaotic portions that "the format of the debate has gotten a little strange. And I begin to wonder when Mr. Russert will declare his candidacy."
Some candidates begged. Or Hatch did, at any rate, pleading with voters to "give me a chance ... I have experience ... I think it's time to give me a chance." Hatch stopped short of dropping to his knees.
Slap-fights came when the candidates dived into what the debate organizers referred to as a "modified" version of the format of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. It was then, for instance, that Keyes took umbrage at jokemaster McCain's aside that he enjoyed the f-word-happy band Nine Inch Nails -- a flippant remark he made after visiting the MTV music video awards with his then-14-year-old daughter.
"You ought to be a little more serious," Keyes charged, "instead of aiding and abetting cultural murder."
"Can I get a lifeline?" McCain asked.
It was almost enough to make you forget that all six men fundamentally agree on most of the issues raised, disputing only in hazy shades of gray.
Their differences were mainly in personality. Bush was his cocky, glib and suspect self; McCain intense and wacky, uncharacteristically straining to remind people of his war heroics. The automatonic Forbes preached the supply-side gospel according to Wanniski while smartypants Bauer channeled his pubescent self, no doubt subject to numerous schoolyard poundings. Keyes deigned to display his brilliance to us all, while teetering on the precipice of meltdown. Hatch presumably had a pulse.
All of the candidates agreed with the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy shoving gays and lesbians in the military into the closet for the sake of unit cohesion -- with the notable exception of Keyes, that is, who favors returning to the original policy of an outright ban on them serving at all.
"The military is not an agency for social experimentation," said Forbes, whose late millionaire father was a frequent visitor at gay leather bars.
They also agreed that Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez should remain in the United States rather than be returned to his father in Communist Cuba. Keyes argued that there the constitution provides no guaranteed separation of church and state; Hatch said that he was best suited to pick federal judges; Bauer asserted that he was the pro-life-iest of them all. Both Forbes and Hatch had to fend off questions about the seeming impotence of their campaign efforts.
McCain has been pounded so hard this week that Thursday's debate was something of an anticlimax, as Bush generally remained out of the fray. The Arizona senator spent much of Wednesday and Thursday on the defensive, answering questions about a contributor, Lowell "Bud" Paxson, for whom McCain did a favor.
Only weeks ago, the Boston Globe revealed, McCain wrote a letter to the Federal Communications Commission urging action on an issue of financial interest to Paxson regarding the sale of a Pittsburgh television station that had been bottlenecked in the bureaucracy. Since McCain has made campaign finance reform a major issue in his legislative career as well as his campaign, the thinking went, he was thus vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy.
It's not surprising that some see Bush behind the sudden trouble for McCain. Lurking in the darkness of a New Hampshire hotel bar on Wednesday night, I happened upon a number of operatives from a rival GOP campaign. Whispering in hushed tones, barely illuminated in the soft glow of one remote lamp, the campaign staffers looked like extras from "The Sopranos."
They were talking about why Bush and his camp have been heaving so much garbage at McCain.
"You oughta see Bush's poll numbers," one said. "The voters of New Hampshire have figured this guy out."
"Figured him out how?" I asked.
"That there's nothing there," another replied. "New Hampshire voters are smart. They see through him. And that's why he's been going so negative, why this Bush surrogate has whacked McCain here, why that Bush surrogate has leaked that story to the Boston Globe" -- the largest newspaper in New England -- "and why it's going to keep going. If they can't build Bush up, they'll at least tear McCain down."
Which Bush and his surrogates have been doing fairly well. Bush himself warned Thursday that if McCain is going to run for president on campaign finance reform, "He better walk the walk. Sen. McCain is the chairman of a very powerful committee in the United States Senate," Bush nudged. This despite the fact that there is zero evidence that McCain has done anything illegal or untoward or even remotely unseemly, especially in comparison with the normal antics in the back rooms of the Best Li'l Whorehouses in Washington.
McCain asserted that the very questions he's being asked about Paxson are the reason why he's been fighting for campaign finance reform. The appearance of impropriety, he said, "taints us all. No matter what we do, we're under a cloud of suspicion."
Is McCain "walking the walk?" Russert asked Bush.
"I thought his answer was fine," Bush said, turning the subject to campaign finance reform and how it will allegedly hurt the GOP.
Then McCain lectured Bush. "I don't think you have any idea" of the corrupting influence of campaign finance cash, he told him.
"I don't think you have any idea what I have any idea of," Bush sniffed.
McCain knows all too well how screwy and stinky the loopholes in the campaign finance laws can be. In the last few days, Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group headed by Bush supporter Grover Norquist, has been running anti-McCain "issue ads" in New Hampshire.
"He's the only Republican candidate approved by the liberal New York Times," the ad says. "Bill Clinton, Al Gore and big labor all endorse his top legislative priorities. Sen. John McCain. Helping Democrats pass a campaign finance bill that would keep the Republican Party from fighting the liberal national media. Yet McCain's bill would leave trial lawyers, labor unions and pro-abortion groups free to attack Republicans -- just like they did for Bill Clinton."
At this point in the ad, McCain's face morphs into that of Clinton.
"This ad is a scandal and the media should follow the money," charged Warren Rudman, a McCain supporter and former New Hampshire senator, before the debate.
In the debate, however, McCain took a more humorous approach to the Bush surrogate's attack. "Ask him to get a better picture, will you?" he joked, "and ask him at least to disclose where this money is coming from."
The money is only a $100,000 buy, only on WMUR-TV, and only for a month. If McCain continues to remain a threat to Bush, he should expect -- as he does -- a lot more money, a lot more dirty and misleading accusations and a lot more people fighting George W's fights for him.
The candidates next square off Friday night in South Carolina.