HANOVER, N.H. — In the most spirited presidential debate so far, the six Republican candidates battled Saturday over the issues that divide them into conservative and moderate camps, with the front-runners, Vice President George Bush and Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, giving as good as they got.
It was the fourth time the Republican candidates have gone at each other and the first debate in New Hampshire, the scene of the nation's first primary on Feb. 16, and a state known for its conservative voting habits.
Bush is in first place here and Dole second, according to most public opinion polls. In Iowa, which holds precinct caucuses on Feb. 8, the positions are reversed.
It was a freewheeling debate Saturday. The tone was set almost from the outset, with the conservative candidates, New York Rep. Jack Kemp, former television evangelist Pat Robertson, former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV and former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. taking Bush and Dole to task over issues of defense and taxes.
If the debate at Dartmouth College held a turning point for any candidate, it was Dole. In the past, he seemed reluctant to take the offensive for fear of appearing mean, an image that hurt him in 1976 when he ran unsuccessfully for vice president. On Saturday, Dole unsheathed his vaunted wit, and it was caustic at times.
Citing a piece of Bush campaign literature that gave the vice president credit for a 1983 bill aimed at rescuing the ailing Social Security system, Dole said: "I thought I fixed it too. I don't recall George being in the loop on that."
And after Du Pont criticized Dole's vote in favor of a bill to raise taxes, Dole ridiculed Du Pont's conservative stance in the presidential campaign.
"Pete is a great conservative," Dole said. "You should have known him when he was in the House," a reference to Du Pont's relatively liberal voting record in Congress during the early 1970s.
Robertson, meanwhile, attempted to portray Bush as unable to grasp elements of the recent nuclear arms treaty with the Soviet Union, accusing the vice president of not knowing "the difference between a nuclear missile and a warhead."
Bush Defends Treaty
But Bush continued his vigorous defense of the missile reduction treaty, about which Robertson, Kemp, Du Pont and Haig all have expressed strong reservations.
"I don't think we should be afraid, based on our knowledge, experience and strength, to talk to the Soviets," Bush said. "(Mikhail S.) Gorbachev is different. . . . So, let's reach out and not be afraid to take a step for peace."
Amid his repeated sharp jabs, Dole frequently softened the rhetoric, offering a more complete picture of his candidacy than he has in past debates.
When the debate moderator, NBC-TV commentator John Chancellor, asked what the Republican candidates were prepared to do to change the image of their party as uncompassionate, Dole spoke of doing more about child care, homelessness and hunger.
"The government has got to do it, if no one else will," Dole said.
Sets Campaign Apart
Statements like those, combined with Dole's references to a Depression-era childhood and a disabling wound suffered in World War II, help set his campaign apart and a bit to the left of his opponents.
During the debate, Dole joked that a Dartmouth professor had commented that Dole sounded like a Democrat. The candidate's message was clear: Even in conservative New Hampshire, looking like a Democrat is a risk he is willing to take.
What people want, he said, is "someone in the White House who got there the hard way, who had a few bumps along the way."
Bush, perhaps a bit less aggressive than he has been in previous debates, still succeeded in framing the essential message of his campaign.
He summarized the key points in his background that he says make him uniquely qualified to be President. He spoke of his stint as a World War II combat pilot, of building his own business, of heading the CIA, of serving in Congress and serving seven years as vice president.
'The Education President'
"My vision? I want to be the education President," Bush said. "Because better schools lead to better jobs. . . . I want to be the President who finally whips the budget into shape by holding the line on taxes, keeping the country growing and getting the line-item veto. I want to be the person who attracts the very best because I believe in the public service."
Bush's role in the Iran-Contra scandal, a frequent subject on the campaign trail in recent days despite his efforts to dismiss it, also came up during the debate.
Bush was accused by Du Pont of backing a "dumb and nutty" attempt to reach out to moderates in the Iranian government. Du Pont was throwing back at Bush the words Bush had used in a prior debate to describe Du Pont's ideas for reforming the Social Security system.
Haig drew the biggest laugh of the evening with a poke at Du Pont's idea that the nation's drug problem can be dealt with by taking away the driver's licenses of teen-agers who use drugs.
"I'm worried about the druggie who's stealing my car," Haig said. "He doesn't care about a driver's license."
Voodoo Economics Revisited
And Bush made the most surprising statement when he commented ruefully on his own famous 1980 characterization of Reaganomics: "That's the only memorable thing I ever said--voodoo economics."
Televised statewide, the debate offered the four trailing candidates the only chance they may have before the New Hampshire primary to confront the vice president in a public forum. Bush has indicated that he is likely to skip a debate scheduled for Feb. 14.
Staff writer Cathleen Decker contributed to this story.