DES MOINES -- You didn't need a map the other night to know that the six surviving Republican presidential candidates were debating in Iowa. Except for Sen. John McCain, who isn't actively competing in the Jan. 24 precinct caucuses here, they bent over backwards to tell Iowans what they wanted to hear: a pro-farm family, anti-abortion, Christian message.
And each of the other five candidates -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer, Sen. Orrin Hatch and Alan Keyes -- tried to outdo the others in convincing such folks that he is the most God-loving, child-protecting and farm-preserving of the bunch.
Mr. McCain claimed that he too was all those things, but he conspicuously told the Iowans something they probably didn't want to hear. Without being asked, he pointedly reiterated his opposition to subsidies for ethanol, the fuel produced from corn, the state's major crop, inviting sharp attacks from the others.
It was clear that the Arizona senator, who has not been organizing in Iowa -- choosing instead to concentrate his resources on the New Hampshire primary eight days later -- had another political objective in mind.
While the other five candidates pitched openly to the large right-to-life constituency in this state, Mr. McCain played the maverick card on the ethanol issue.
"I want to tell you the things that you don't want to hear as well as the things that you want to hear, and one of those is ethanol," he said. "Those ethanol subsidies should be phased out. And everybody here on this stage, if it wasn't for the fact that Iowa is the first caucus state, would share my view that we don't need ethanol subsidies."
Mr. Bush, who is being crowded by Mr. McCain in New Hampshire, jumped to the opportunity: "I support ethanol strongly, John, and I've supported ethanol whether I was here in Iowa or not. . . . It's good for the quality of the air. It also reduces our dependency on foreign oil."
Mr. Bush, and the others like Mr. Hatch, who disagreed with Mr. McCain, clearly were talking to the farmers of Iowa who depend on the ethanol subsidies. Even Mr. Forbes, that staunch proponent of free enterprise, joined in with a half-pander by saying the subsidies should continue as a test of ethanol's merits for another seven years, when they are to expire. Then, he said, "if it doesn't work, cut it out."
Mr. McCain, on the other hand, was talking in the nationally televised debate not so much to Iowans as to voters in New Hampshire and other primary states, illustrating his independence and willingness to put his head in the Iowa lion's mouth.
His strategists acknowledge that they'd like to get what they can in the Iowa caucuses but without looking as if they're trying -- the better to boast if somehow he runs ahead of any of the others who have been campaigning diligently in the state.
Mr. McCain's decision to bypass Iowa -- he skipped last August's ballyhooed straw vote won by Mr. Bush -- was based not only on his politically incendiary position here on ethanol. It was a cold calculation that he couldn't spend what it would have taken in the more costly organizing of a caucus state and still be competitive in New Hampshire.
His appearance in the other night's debate, and another one here next month, amount to free throws for him; nothing ventured, nothing gained -- or lost.
Meanwhile, the others, who missed no chance here to showcase their religious faith in this state with strong Christian organizations and values. Asked to name the philosopher or thinker most influential in their lives, Mr. Bush and Mr. Bauer with no hesitation invoked Jesus Christ -- Mr. Bush particularly with an emotional recitation of how he had taken Christ as his personal savior.
Mr. Bush seemed a little more self-assured in his answers and demeanor than he did in his two earlier debates, which had drawn criticism that he lacked the substance and smarts for the presidency.
But he was hardly a tower over the others as might have been expected from his big lead in most of the polls, except New Hampshire. Still, the Texas governor remains the heavy favorite for the first test among real voters here.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.