GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — In the last and most critical confrontation of the campaign here, Republican front-runners George Bush and Bob Dole fought off their more conservative foes, with the vice president using sincerity and the senator from Kansas relying on an old standby, his barbed wit.
However, Bush and Dole avoided sparring with each other, except for an occasional dig from Dole. Partly because of their on-stage truce, neither man dominated the debate Sunday. If anyone needed to deliver a knockout punch, it was Bush, who must reverse a dangerous slide in the polls if he is to win the primary on Tuesday.
Bush's most compelling moment came at the end of the debate when he asked voters to overlook his flaws as a campaigner and believe in his strengths. It was a plea for New Hampshire Republicans to save his campaign.
'My Work Isn't Done'
"I have a tendency to go on and on and on, but please don't take that for lack of passion, a lack of belief," Bush said. "I don't talk much, but I believe. I may not articulate much but I feel. And my work isn't done yet. I want to lead this country. I want to lead this country to more reliable prosperity, to a more comprehensive peace, to keep the United States of America strong, and I wouldn't ask for this job if I didn't think that I was best for this job. Eleven months from now, when I take the oath of office, I'll remember four words: Thank you, New Hampshire."
Rarely has a political debate loomed so large. It was like waiting for the Republican Olympics.
The hopes and dreams of five men who want to run the country suddenly rested on what they might have to say to each other during an hourlong conversation. Bush and Dole went into the debate locked in a virtual dead heat for first place. The three conservatives, Pat Robertson, the former religious broadcaster; New York Rep. Jack Kemp, and former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, were bunched together in a fight for a critical third-place finish.
Equanimity Under Fire
When it was over, the Dole forces said they were confident that Bush, despite his earnestness and his equanimity under fire, had not reclaimed the race.
"The vice president had been sliding so fast that he simply had to win and win big. He didn't do that. There is simply no way he can claim a victory in this debate," said William E. Brock, former secretary of labor who resigned to become Dole's campaign manager.
But there were uneasy moments for Dole, especially when Du Pont waived a copy of former New Hampshire Gov. Meldrim Thomson's famous pledge not to raise taxes, and challenged Dole to sign it.
Dole ducked the challenge with a quip.
"I have to read it first. Maybe George will sign it." The line is an old Dole standby he first used to suggest that Bush rushed into the recent nuclear arms treaty with the Soviets before reading the treaty.
Once again, Dole got a laugh. But taxes are a touchy subject in New Hampshire, and Dole's failure to sign the pledge, however hokey the circumstances, may have played into the hands of critics, like Du Pont, who say Dole is too moderate for New Hampshire.
"I was stunned that a very quick-witted fellow (like Dole) couldn't answer Du Pont's challenge to sign the tax pledge," said Lee Atwater, Bush's national campaign manager, in one of those post-debate comments designed to influence the way such events are analyzed by the news media.
Dole got off his best shot at Du Pont, who is an heir to the Du Pont chemical family fortune, in responding to the charge that he habitually voted for higher taxes.
That wasn't raising taxes, Dole said. "That was closing loopholes for big companies, like Du Pont."
Few Signs of Tension
For the most part, the candidates seemed relaxed, betraying few signs of the tension surrounding the event. Kemp and Du Pont were the provocateurs. The sharpest moment of the debate came when Kemp attacked Bush for offering what Kemp regarded as a weak-kneed position on the proper U.S. role in Afghanistan.
Robertson followed with the claim that, in the Administration's haste to sign a nuclear arms treaty, it had failed to come to grips with a new threat in Cuba, the installation of SS-4s and SS-5s, intermediate-range nuclear missiles of the kind banned after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
But after the debate, New Hampshire Sen. Warren B. Rudman, chairman of Dole's campaign in the state, said he doubted the accuracy of Robertson's startling claim.
'Would Have Known'
"I do serve on the defense appropriations subcommittee . . . and we get briefed on everything of a threat nature," Rudman said. "I dare say that the Congress would have known about it and we probably wouldn't have to learn about it in Manchester, N.H."
A Robertson aide later said the candidate meant missile delivery systems, not warheads. In California, a White House official traveling with President Reagan said: "There's no indication of any nuclear missiles or weapons in Cuba."