In their first nationally televised encounter, the 10 contenders for the Republican presidential nomination virtually stumbled over each other Wednesday in their efforts to proclaim themselves as the most conservative candidate in the field.
An evening that began with a power failure that darkened the studio during an opening statement from New Hampshire Gov. Steve Merrill ended without any real sparks from the GOP rivals. Throughout the 90-minute session, the Republican pack--an unwieldy and diverse group ranging from front-runner Bob Dole of Kansas, the Senate majority leader, to businessmen Malcolm S. Forbes Jr. and Morry Taylor--repeatedly stressed a few conservative themes:
* Cutting taxes and spending.
* Devolving power from the federal government to the states.
* Returning the nation to traditional moral values.
So similar were the ideas the candidates emphasized that the forum frequently resembled a pee-wee soccer game, with everyone running in the same direction at once. By the time Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania held up a postcard dramatizing his support for a flat-rate income tax, Forbes and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander had already praised the idea. Likewise, by the time Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas pledged to end federal affirmative action programs, Dole and conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan had already denounced such programs as well.
Unable to draw clear ideological distinctions, most of the candidates focused instead on attempting to convince voters that they were the most personally committed to pursuing a conservative assault on the size and scope of the federal government.
Dole, who still faces doubts about his ardor from many conservative activists, made one of the evening's few dramatic statements when he forcefully refuted the claim that he has moved to the right in his bid for the nomination.
Focusing on social issues, Dole said: "I first talked about [sex and violence in] movies in 1967. I first talked about English first, English [as the nation's] official language in 1982. . . . Those who say I'm moving to the right fail to understand I've been a mainstream conservative throughout my career and I'm proud of it."
The forum, conducted at Manchester television station WMUR, came as the campaign in New Hampshire--site of the first-in-the-nation primary on Feb. 20--is measurably shifting into a higher gear.
An opinion poll completed last week in the state showed Dole leading with support from 35% of those surveyed, followed by Buchanan with just 9%, Forbes and Alexander tied at 7%, and Gramm at 6%. The other contenders all registered support of 2% or less.
Nothing in Wednesday night's debate appeared likely to significantly change those dynamics. Rather than a traditional debate, the evening was more like an extended Sunday morning interview program; a moderator questioned each of the candidates for about five minutes, and each was allowed to make short opening and closing statements.
Though the format tended to diffuse rather than sharpen differences among the candidates, some distinctions did emerge. Buchanan stressed the tough-on-trade economic nationalism that has set his campaign apart, promising to "bust open foreign markets" in China and Japan. Specter touted his support for abortion rights and sharply criticized the leaders of the Christian Coalition, saying the party should not be diverted by an overemphasis on social issues. And Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana set himself apart with his proposal for a national sales tax to replace the income tax system and by saying that as President, he would focus on encouraging racial reconciliation.
Alexander, Buchanan and Forbes sought to break from the pack by identifying themselves as outsiders unattached to the insular political culture in Washington. Their remarks rippled with implied criticism of Dole and Gramm--senators who have raised the most money in the presidential campaign and secured the most support from other politicians.
"It is hard to change the culture of Washington if you are the culture of Washington," said Alexander, who insisted that his service as education secretary during the George Bush Administration "vaccinated, not infected" him with that culture.
Forbes said: "We have a political class in Washington with an obsolete mind-set. The solution is simple: Take away their power and give it back to the people."
Even Rep. Robert K. Dornan of Garden Grove, though a Washington veteran himself, tried a variation on the outsider theme, complaining: "This is a panel of Republican millionaires" while casting himself as more of a common man.
Dornan was also the lone candidate to directly criticize the acquittal of O.J. Simpson on murder charges last week, calling it a case of "jury nullification."
But mostly the candidates united in declaring their commitment to carrying forward the conservative agenda defined primarily by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his allies in the 1994 congressional elections. "The principles of the revolution of 1994 must be continued," Dole declared.
Typifying the forum's low-key style, the ordinarily pugnacious Gramm only obliquely challenged Dole's claim to the conservative mantle, jabbing at his rival's reputation as a pragmatic legislative deal-maker. "If you want a President . . . who won't cut deals with Democrats in Washington . . . then I am your man," Gramm said.
Times staff writer Eleanor Randolph contributed to this story.