MANCHESTER, N.H. -- In a polite prelude to next winter's primary battles, the Republican presidential contenders stuck to their scripts and struck few sparks last night in the first televised forum of the 1996 campaign.
The 10 GOP candidates, appearing together at a New Hampshire television station, heeded the warnings of local Republican leaders to keep to the issues and avoid attacking one another during the 90-minute program.
Sen. Bob Dole, the early leader in the Republican race, focused his fire on President Clinton, accusing him of "using the presidency to spread fear and divide us" in his re-election bid.
Asked if age would be an issue in the campaign, Mr. Dole, 72, attempted to dismiss the question with a joke, as Ronald Reagan did in a 1984 debate.
Turning to the nine rivals seated behind him, the senator remarked: "They look all right to me.
"I'm not going to make health care an issue in the 1996 race," added Mr. Dole, who would be the oldest man ever to become president.
"I'm in good health, and if any of these fellows want to follow me around for a few days, they'll find out."
Aides to several opposing candidates were critical of Mr. Dole's performance, pointing to a passage in his closing remarks that he appeared to read from a script.
"And why do I want to be president? Because I will not permit the slow decline of America, a country that I love," said the Senate majority leader, who has often been criticized for lacking a clear vision of why he wants to be president.
Several rivals, including Sen. Phil Gramm, made vague allusions to Mr. Dole's reputation as a deal-cutting insider and implied that he was a prisoner of the status quo in Washington. But they steered clear of any sharp criticisms.
Mr. Gramm, during a pre-debate rally with cheering, whistling local supporters, dared Mr. Dole to sign a pledge reaffirming his commitment to a $245 billion tax cut. But during the TV forum, the Texan never brought it up. A Dole aide dismissed the challenge as "old news."
The debate format was designed to give the candidates a chance to showcase their largely similar conservative credentials the conservative GOP electorate of the first primary state. And most of them took advantage of it, presenting condensed versions of their stump speeches and campaign commercials.
A technical glitch provided the only real surprise of the evening, when the lighting on the set failed for about five minutes at the start of the program.
"We promise there'll be plenty of light shed on the debate at some point," quipped New Hampshire Gov. Stephen Merrill, who was speaking at the time.
Billed as an important event in the Republican contest, the forum was the first opportunity for a large audience of ordinary voters in a key state to see and hear the candidates. The event was
broadcast in prime time on WMUR-TV, the state's most-watched station, and carried into millions of homes nationwide by CNN.
Ratings figures weren't immediately available. But the forum's sponsors dodged one potential conflict when a planned NBC-TV interview of O. J. Simpson was canceled; however, the political broadcast still had to compete with baseball playoffs for viewer attention.
Patrick J. Buchanan, who finished second in the New Hampshire primary four years ago, called for term limits and other political reforms in Washington, a position echoed by two other "outsider" candidates in the race, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and millionaire publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes Jr.
Rep. Robert K. Dornan used the event to announce that he was filing for re-election to his California congressional seat but intended to remain in the presidential race.
Alan L. Keyes of Maryland, a fervent opponent of abortion, delivered the sharpest retort of the evening. He upbraided moderator Carl Cameron, telling him to "stop asking that stupid question," in response to a query about legislating morality.
And Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, one of the long shots in the field, tried the only real stunt of the evening, holding up an outsized tax form for the cameras to dramatize his proposal for a national sales tax.
Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar also emphasized taxes, saying that a national sales tax was superior to any form of income tax. Millionaire industrialist Maurice "Morry" Taylor Jr. described himself by what he's not: "I'm not a politician and I'm not a lawyer."
With the primary still four months away, most New Hampshire voters have yet to settle firmly on a candidate, according to a recent poll. The statewide survey, conducted by Dartmouth College, found that up to two of every three Republicans in the state would consider switching their allegiance if Colin L. Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were to enter the race.
Mr. Dole remains the clear favorite of New Hampshire Republicans, as he has been since he announced his candidacy in February. The Kansas senator was the first choice of 35 percent of likely primary voters, according to the Dartmouth poll. Buchanan, Mr. Forbes, Mr. Alexander and Mr. Gramm trailed, with less than 10 percent each.
Before the forum, Mr. Buchanan said at a press conference that if he is the Republican nominee, he also would seek the nomination of Ross Perot's proposed third party, as well as other minor parties that have ballot lines in some states, such as the U.S. Taxpayers Party and the Right-to-Life and Conservative parties of New York.
Previously, Mr. Buchanan, a lifelong Republican, had indicated that he would support whomever his party nominates next year.