MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Sen. John McCain, the favorite in the Republican primary battle in New Hampshire, defended himself last night against challenges from his rivals over abortion, taxes and campaign finance reform.
The 90-minute television debate, the last before Tuesday's primary vote, featured some of the sharpest exchanges of the campaign between McCain and Bush, who is running ahead of the field nationally. It also contained the most bizarre back-and-forth of the race, as former State Department official Alan Keyes was taken to task over his lighthearted leap into an Iowa mosh pit last week.
McCain, whose message of campaign reform has resonated with voters here, maintained that he would be a better Republican choice than Bush to take on Vice President Al Gore, the likely Democratic nominee, over the administration's alleged campaign finance abuses.
"George, you're going to have nothing to say," said McCain, referring to Bush's opposition to the McCain reform proposal. "You said that it is bad for our party. I'm always willing to believe that what's good for our country is good for our party."
Bush turned to McCain, whom he sardonically addressed as his "buddy" at one point, and replied: "You can call all kinds of names you want."
The Texas governor said "the truth of the matter" was that "an overwhelming number" of congressional Republicans oppose McCain's plan because it would put the party at a competitive disadvantage against the Democrats in campaign financing.
McCain also heatedly defended his anti-abortion credentials after Keyes pointedly questioned the senator's understanding of the issue.
"I want to tell you something. I've seen enough killing in my life," said McCain, a former Navy pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war. "I know how precious human life is, and I don't need a lecture from you."
McCain's rejoinder came almost an hour after he and Keyes engaged in an extended exchange over a comment that the senator made yesterday on his campaign bus.
McCain was asked by a reporter what he would do if his 15-year-old daughter became pregnant and did not want to have the baby. At first McCain said the choice to have an abortion would be ultimately up to her, but later he called it a "family decision" that he and his wife, Cindy, would have to make with their child.
"I [have] got to admit I think that displays a profound lack of understanding of the basic issue of principle involved with abortion," Keyes said to McCain.
"If your daughter came to you and said she was contemplating killing her grandmother you wouldn't say, `Let's have a family conference.' You'd look at her and say, `Just say no.' Because that is morally wrong. It is God's choice that that child is in the womb."
Setting his jaw, McCain stared sternly as the question was asked and then responded: "I'm proud of my pro-life record in public life."
Tersely, he added, "I will not draw my children into this discussion."
Keyes accused McCain of not answering the question and suggested he is incapable of representing the views of the Republican Party on abortion or appealing as a legitimate alternative to anti-abortion Democrats in a general election. "How can we trust you to move forward to understand our position on this issue?" Keyes asked.
Steve Forbes, running a weak third here and nationally, complained to moderator Bernard Shaw of CNN at one point in the debate that he had been unfairly given less time than Bush and McCain.
"Let's face it, the media thinks that's where the contest is," the wealthy publisher said.
"I want to put it in the hands of the voters."
However, Forbes was treated better by Shaw than conservative activist Gary L. Bauer, now running last in the five-man field. Shaw bluntly asked Bauer when he might drop out of the race.
Keyes, meantime, was questioned about his plunge into a mosh pit Sunday night. Bush asked about it in a light-hearted way.
But Bauer, noting that a tune by Rage Against the Machine (Bauer at first called it "The Machine Rages On") that was playing at the time is "the kind of music that the killers at Columbine High School were immersed in."
"Accusing me of having some complicity in that music would be accusing me for the color of my skin," said Keyes, an African-American.
Following the Republican debate, the Democratic candidates held an hourlong debate on the same stage.
Last night's back-to-back debates may have been the first time presidential contenders from both major parties held consecutive debates on national television on the same night.
The 2 1/2-hour talkathon was made necessary because of President Clinton's State of the Union message this evening, when the Democrats had originally been scheduled to debate.
Next week's primary poses a more difficult challenge to the front-runners in both parties than Monday's Iowa caucuses.
But post-Iowa polling suggests that both Bush and Gore received at least a slight boost from their caucus victories.