(CNSNews.com) - Texas Governor George W Bush and Arizona Senator John McCain were the apparent winners, according to some observers of the first Republican presidential debate to include all GOP candidates vying for the nomination.
Thursday night's presidential debate in New Hampshire, the first such for Bush after skipping a previous debate, drew the GOP frontrunner into the firing line of other candidates trying to chip away at his status as the leading candidate for the Republican nomination.
"Bush didn't hurt himself. He didn't help himself either," New York pollster John Zogby told CNSNews.com. "He was very lightweight. His program was defensive in a format where he didn't have to be defensive. He never got any tough questions."
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato saw Bush and McCain tying for the winner of the debate hosted by WMUR-TV in Manchester, NH and Fox News Channel.
But Sabato admits, if there is a tilt in the tie, it would go to McCain.
"As I watched Bush and McCain, it just occurred to me that the perfect fit for New Hampshire is McCain. Unless Bush's money can manage to somehow tilt the state narrowly toward himself, McCain will probably win New Hampshire," Sabato told CNSNews.com.
"McCain's a maverick. They like to think of themselves as mavericks. This is a state that nominated Pat Buchanan," Sabato said.
Should Bush lose the New Hampshire primary, Sabato said his campaign should be prepared to explain why New Hampshire is not representative of even the Republican Party, much less the country. "They have to be able to contain McCain immediately after New Hampshire."
Zogby, however, is more prone to give the dibs to McCain for showing voters more of what he has to offer.
"When all is said and done, I think the winner was John McCain. Given the limitations of the format, we saw a deeper John McCain. We saw somebody who tried to be knowledgeable about a wide variety of issues. He was forthright on how he would deal with some of those issues rather than vague generalities about vision," Zogby said.
"We also saw some wit of probably one of the funniest political lines I've heard in a while," Zogby said, in reference to McCain's comments about Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.
"I would not only reappoint Mr. Greenspan," McCain said, "if Mr. Greenspan should happen to die, God forbid, I would do like we 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.
McCain's comments countered Steve Forbes' contention that he would replace Greenspan because of the Chairman's views on inflation versus a prosperous economy.
Forbes continued to pronounce himself as a Washington outsider, trying to associate Governor Bush with "Washington politicians."
But after Forbes reiterated his opposition to Bush's willingness to "consider" raising the minimum age for Social Security retirement, Bush shot back with a quote from Forbes made twenty years ago.
Bush read a quote by Forbes when he suggested gradually raising "the age at which one may collect his full benefits. Those now in their 20's would not be eligible until they're 67 or 68." That, Forbes countered, was a belief he held 20 years ago.
But like Forbes' often repeated line about being a Washington outsider, Zogby said Bush had a habit of repetition as well.
"Over and over and over again, (Bush) said, 'I have leadership. I have a vision. I've been the leader of the eleventh largest economy in the world. He said that...to the point where we didn't really learn anything new or useful about him," Zogby said.
Sabato offered sharp criticism of Forbes, who he said is "not a serious candidate." Republicans are "too hungry for victory to take an unnecessary chance. Forbes would be an enormous roll of the dice and not only a likely loser, probably a likely landslide loser."
"Whatever it is that you need to have in the television age to connect with people and get elected president, he doesn't have it. It's beyond charisma. I can't explain it," Sabato said.
Forbes is pre-programmed on 'anti-Washington, anti-Washington, anti-Washington,' said Zogby. "But I don't know how 'anti-Washington' Republican voters are this time around. They have control of Congress, so you have to be careful about being anti-Washington."
Zogby said Forbes "throws out a confusing message" since running for the GOP nomination in 1996, going from being a pure libertarian candidate to being a libertarian candidate on economics and finance and socially conservative. "He muddies the water a bit."
Sabato believes McCain is a substantial threat to Bush only in New Hampshire. The rest of the country, however, may not hold as much regard for the Arizona Senator. "He's not a national candidate," Sabato said. "Yes, he'll get a bump in the polls after New Hampshire. But at the same time, there are too many Republicans interested in voting in GOP primaries and caucuses who view McCain as unacceptable.
The more states McCain wins in the primaries, the better chances Republicans have of losing the general election to Democrats, according to Sabato. "These are golden times and despite the early polls, I think that this is at best a close race for the Republicans. It's going to be tough to elect a Republican when Democrats are in charge in the White House and times are good.
If the front-runner with the best chance of winning the general election is damaged during the primary, his chances are reduced in winning the presidency, Sabato said of the attacks on Bush.