Hanover, NH (CNSNews.com) - Five Republican presidential hopefuls made their second joint appearance in New Hampshire Thursday night, seizing the opportunity to criticize George W Bush for his second New Hampshire no-show in less than a week.
Former Reagan advisor Gary Bauer, Publisher Steve Forbes, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, radio talk show host Alan Keyes and Arizona Senator John McCain appeared before 300 voters in a town meeting format on the campus of Dartmouth College -- an hour-long give and take, sponsored by CNN and WMUR-TV, the state's ABC affiliate.
Each candidate had 90 seconds to respond to pre-screened questions from the audience, with no time allowed for rebuttal by others.
Bush begged off participating in the event, insisting he had a long-term commitment to join his wife, as she was being honored by her alma mater, Southern Methodist University. (See Related Story)
While he has consistently declined to criticize the front runner, McCain used this opportunity to jab at Bush, telling the nationally televised audience New Hampshire that voters need to "talk to us and see us a lot," a pointed reference to Bush's infrequent visits to the state.
But it fell to Forbes to directly attack the Texan. Responding to a question about the role of money in the campaign, Forbes noted that Bush missed last week's New Hampshire forum, choosing to attend a Vermont fund-raiser instead. He also mentioned the fact that Bush skipped a scheduled visit to a Rhode Island public school to attend a different fundraiser. Then came the Forbes barb: "Perhaps in the future, at a forum like this, if we call it a fund-raiser, he might show up."
During Thursday night's forum, Forbes and Bauer clashed over their respective flat tax proposals. Insisting the Forbes plan would permit corporations to pay no taxes, Bauer said his 16 percent across the board proposals would be fair to everyone.
"Gary, you are wrong," Forbes responded. The publisher insisted his plan provides generous deductions, making it possible for a family of four to pay no tax on the first $41,000 of their total income, while paying 17 percent on anything above that baseline.
McCain received the most applause for his position on campaign finance reform. Insisting much of Washington is dominated by special interests, McCain promised he would "not rest until I give government back to you."
McCain also received sustained applause when he told the gathering the all-volunteer military has not been a failure; rather, he said, the administration and Congress have failed the volunteer force by spending billions on unneeded programs, while ignoring critical needs.
"The president and Congress has harmed the military to such a degree that it is obscene...there are 12,000 enlisted military on food stamps...it's a disgrace and an outrage and I'm going to fix it."
Asked about legalizing marijuana, McCain joked it was a question he would rather duck, but said the nation is loosing the war on drugs and should do as former First Lady Nancy Reagan suggested and "just say no."
Keyes characterized the nation's drug problem as symptomatic of "moral decline," adding, "You can't sustain self-government without self-discipline."
But it was health care which generated the most concern among the audience.
Bauer criticized the GOP-controlled Congress for its failure to permit patients to sue their health maintenance organizations, while Forbes called for the creation of medical savings accounts.
Returning to his favorite theme, campaign finance reform, McCain insisted health care will not be remedied until campaign finance reforms are signed into law.
Asked his position on hiring homosexuals in his administration, Forbes responded, "I will hire people who are qualified for the job...people who are there to get something done, not people who want to make a lifestyle statement...I believe in equal rights for all and special rights for none."
Questioned about federal funding for Ameri-Corp and other government-supported volunteer efforts, Keyes insisted volunteer programs should be returned to the private sector and faith-based institutions. As for the role of government, he added, "Volunteerism ought to be just that...governmental involvement has been detrimental. They've botched it up."
Asked about payment of back dues to the United Nations, Keyes, a frequent critic of the UN said, "I'd continue to withhold the money until there is U.N. reform."