The machine rages on

GOP and Democratic presidential candidates fire their last salvos in New Hampshire.

Published January 27, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Wednesday night's debates in New Hampshire -- both Republican and Democratic -- were the most combative and illuminating of any thus far. In contrast to the earlier encounters, there were genuine moments of tension, acrimony and outright anger.

Those who had been hoping Bill Bradley would fight back against Al Gore's relentless assault finally got their wish. Bradley basically called Gore a liar several times; he accused the vice president of being a captive to special interests; and questioned whether Gore could be trusted as president.

Yet Bradley's attacks may have backfired; for every time Bradley lashed out at Gore for being negative, the vice president simply accused his challenger of doing exactly what he was railing against. Maybe the lesson is that it doesn't pay to street-fight a street-fighter. Gore just looks meaner and meaner in these altercations; Bradley, by contrast, looks uncomfortable, even seems to be having trouble meeting his opponent's steely gaze.

The only people who really laid hands on Gore were the debate moderators, who launched a series of stinging questions about Clinton fatigue and the 1996 fund-raising scandals -- subjects Bradley pretty much ignores. Bradley's attacks were really mere defenses of his proposals dressed up as attacks on Gore; and that's one of the reasons Gore emerged more or less unscathed.

On the Republican side everyone, once again, tried to get in their shots at George W. Bush -- to mixed effect. But there were really two debates on the GOP side -- one between the two front-runners who could actually be nominated and elected president under the present laws of the physical universe (Bush and John McCain) and the other among the three men contending for the hardcore social conservative vote (Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes, and Gary Bauer).

The front-runners' dialogue was the less entertaining but more significant of the two. On the surface, McCain appeared confident and aggressive, while Bush seemed cautious and occasionally befuddled. The real story behind this may be the Bush campaign's apparent belief that it is better to risk losing the New Hampshire primary than get pulled any further to the right on issues that might hurt him in the general election campaign.

This concern is real: The Democrats have been jotting down Bush's recent statements on abortion, taxes, Social Security and the Confederate flag in the hope of punishing him with those stances in the fall. But it's a high-stakes gambit. Because if Bush loses in New Hampshire, the Republican nomination process will go on well into March, whereas the Democratic contest may well come to an end, for all intents and purposes, next Tuesday night.

The real bombast and fireworks, however, came from the three also-rans, and particularly from the two candidates who see that their candidacies may be sputtering rapidly to a close -- Forbes and Bauer. Forbes has the money to continue campaigning as long as he likes; and his campaign received a real boost from his strong second-place showing in the Iowa Caucuses. But polls have shown little evidence that his Iowa "victory" is giving him any bounce in New Hampshire. More than he did in any of the other recent debates, Forbes showed fire when he laid into Bush on taxes and related issues. And he did seem to get under Bush's skin. But by the end of the debate Forbes was reduced to whining to debate host Bernard Shaw about not getting enough time to make his points.

Bauer, who many expect to drop out after Tuesday's primary, pulled out even more stops. After a series of debates in which it often seemed that no GOP candidate could get through the whole 90 minutes without saying at least a few words in Spanish, Bauer reverted to form and brandished the anti-immigrant card, pledging to "take a stand against illegal immigration." He ferociously attacked Forbes on China policy and called Keyes to task for falling into a mosh pit to the background music of Rage Against the Machine. (Bauer wisely flaunted his utter ignorance of popular culture by first misstating the band's name as "The Machine Rages On."). Most of Bauer's attacks missed their mark, but his attack on Keyes did generate the most entertaining and bizarre moment of the debate, if not the campaign season.

In case you haven't seen the earlier debates, the premise of Bauer's remark was to call Keyes to task for his apparent hypocrisy, since he had earlier chided McCain for jokingly praising a gangsta rap group on MTV. The only problem was that Bauer didn't seem to have noticed how Keyes responds to this sort of question, and Keyes responded with one of his classic combinations of hubris, adaptability and rhetorical flourish.

Blaming him for what music was playing was like "holding me responsible for the color of my skin," Keyes told Bauer. But wasn't it a bad example to set? Far from it. Keyes spun his turn in the mosh pit into a metaphor for his trust in the people (Get it? Keyes had to trust that they wouldn't drop him on his head). "And as an emblem of that trust," Keyes bellowed on, "I believe, it was the right thing to do."

But, Bauer asked, wasn't Keyes just reducing the debate to the level of the Jerry Springer show -- an atmosphere Keyes had earlier warned against? Keyes responded that on decamping from the mosh pit, a reporter told him he was the only person he'd ever seen come out of a mosh pit with his tie on straight. From this he launched into another metaphorical tear about how dignity comes not from the surface, but from within. Dignity "is about how you come through difficult times [i.e., his trip through the mosh pit] like we did in slavery."

The greatest testament to Keyes' prodigious skills as a debater is the great gulf between how ridiculous his responses seem in the retelling and how very impressive they seemed at the time he said them. It was an undeniable tour de force. Who would have thought that Keyes' dive into the mosh pit was a grand populist gesture? At the end of Keyes' tear, for the only time during the debate, the press gallery erupted into applause, in what amounted to a collective, "Wayne's World"-esque acclamation: "We are not worthy!"

The net effect of both debates, however, was to reinforce the direction in which each race was already moving -- in Al Gore's favor on the Democratic side, and slightly in John McCain's favor amongst the Republicans.

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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Al Gore Democratic Party George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.