MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Under heavy criticism in a free-swinging TV debate last night, GOP front-runner Bob Dole strongly defended his negative campaign tactics against rivals Patrick J. Buchanan, Lamar Alexander and Steve Forbes.
Mr. Dole gave as good as he got. Fighting to maintain his narrow lead in this potentially pivotal primary state, he accused Mr. Buchanan of changing his position from free trader to protectionist and reminded voters that it was Mr. Alexander who fired the first negative shot of the 1996 campaign.
But Mr. Dole saved his most heated words for Mr. Forbes, who savaged the senator for months here and in Iowa with ads accusing him -- among other things -- of breaking his word not to raise tax rates when he helped engineer a 1990 tax increase.
"We do have a right of self-defense," Mr. Dole said of his own heavy use of negative ads. In a preplanned bit of political theater, he quipped that the Forbes attack ads did not use flattering pictures of him. From his pocket, he pulled a series of snapshots of himself, his wife, Elizabeth, and his dog, Leader, and passed them to Mr. Forbes.
No slouch at political give-and-take after only a few months as a politician, Mr. Forbes responded quickly that "no pretty picture" could disguise Mr. Dole's record on raising taxes.
"I know your problem," Mr. Dole shot back tartly, his voice rising. "You got a lot of money. You want to buy the election. But this election is not for sale."
Much of the 90-minute program was devoted to political process issues, especially the nasty tone of the race. The candidates broke no new ground when asked for their positions on such matters as world trade and Social Security.
The debate, on CNN and WMUR-TV, the state's most-watched station, came five days before Tuesday's primary. Polls indicate that a significant portion of likely GOP voters, perhaps as many as one-fifth, have yet to make up their minds.
If a group of 36 undecided New Hampshire voters who gathered in the studio to watch the debate is any indication, Mr. Alexander may have benefited the most from the event. Seventeen of the 36 said they were still undecided, but of the 19 who made up their minds, 13 went for Mr. Alexander.
"The reason I did so well in Iowa is that I kept on the high road," the former education secretary said during the debate. "People got sick of Mr. Dole and Mr. Forbes slamming each other."
Many voters here are voicing similar complaints. Debate moderator Jack Heath of WMUR asked candidates why they did not run positive ads spelling out their views on such issues as crime. And, when Mr. Dole echoed Mr. Buchanan's praise for the 1981 Reagan tax cut, the newsman interjected, "It's nice to see you two agree."
Mr. Dole -- who launched his first negative ad against Mr. Alexander yesterday, another sign that the former governor is a rising threat to win here -- rejected a plea by Mr. Alexander that he pull the ad off the air. The spot labels the former Tennessee governor as "too liberal" on government spending, taxes and crime, and concludes that "he's not what he appears to be."
"Senator Dole, you're better than your negative ads. Why don't you pull them off?" Mr. Alexander demanded.
Mr. Dole responded by noting that it was Mr. Alexander who ran the first negative ad of the '96 race, an attack here in August on then-candidate Pete Wilson on the day the California governor formally entered the race.
"I thought it was all right, since you did it," said Mr. Dole. He insisted that his commercial merely spells out Mr. Alexander's record as governor of Tennessee. The Dole ad accurately accuses Mr. Alexander of having raised taxes, a charge leveled frequently against Mr. Dole by Mr. Forbes. As governor, Mr. Alexander pushed through a 1 percent sales tax increase to finance a merit pay program for public school teachers as well as tax increases to pay for road and bridge improvements.
Mr. Buchanan assailed Mr. Dole for the content of his ads, saying that he had employed "the cuss words of the establishment" in a TV spot that calls Mr. Buchanan "too extreme" to be president. The ad, quoting from old Buchanan columns, portrays the commentator as hostile to women's rights and potentially reckless when it comes to the issue of nuclear weapons.
"If I'm an extremist, why are you pirating my ideas and parroting my rhetoric," a hoarse Mr. Buchanan went on. "You're becoming a pretty good echo of Pat Buchanan."
But Mr. Dole came back with a dig of his own about accusations yesterday that a top official of Mr. Buchanan's campaign had associated with white supremacists.
"Pat's really getting carried away tonight," Mr. Dole remarked, turning to Mr. Buchanan. "You have a bad day, or something?"
Despite Mr. Forbes' pledge to stay on the high road, the publisher delivered the sharpest attack to date on the financial dealings of Mr. Alexander, who has passed him in some recent polls here.
"You as governor have invested in various scams that you have gotten $1.9 million for," the wealthy publisher charged. He was referring to a series of investments in which Mr. Alexander put up little of his own money and received large returns.
Mr. Forbes, protesting an Alexander ad that he said falsely terms him a "Wall Street insider," compared Mr. Alexander's investment in the Knoxville Journal paper -- in which he turned a $1 option into a profit of more than $600,000 -- to Hillary Rodham Clinton's $100,000 profit in commodities trading.
In a twist on Mr. Alexander's campaign slogan, "ABC -- Alexander Beats Clinton," Mr. Forbes said that "what he meant was, not Bill Clinton, but Hillary Clinton."
Mr. Alexander responded by saying that the reason his investments had become public was because he had released his tax returns, dating back to 1978. He challenged Mr. Forbes, who has refused, to do the same.
Mr. Forbes, who abandoned negative ads this week after seeing his popularity plummet in the face of a voter backlash, conceded he had "made a mistake in Iowa" by running too many of them.
"Too much money," interjected Mr. Dole, who responded vigorously to attacks throughout the evening.
"I've been shot at a lot tonight. But I've been in combat before," the wounded World War II veteran said in his closing remarks.
He even replied to an attack by a minor candidate, former Maryland U.S. Senate nominee Alan L. Keyes, who criticized Mr. Dole for backing President Clinton on the Mexican trade deal, a contentious issue in this state. Mr. Dole noted that President George Bush had initiated the deal.
Trying in vain to stop the political mud wrestling, Rep. Robert K. Dornan of California implored the leading candidates "to stop tearing at one another and focus on [President] Clinton."
Mr. Dole leads in all the public and private surveys, but the size of his margin over Mr. Buchanan, running second, varies from 2 to 10 percentage points, depending on the poll. Mr. Alexander recently moved into third place, passing Mr. Forbes, who is now fourth, according to most of the polls.
Last night's forum was the last scheduled meeting of the major presidential contenders before next week's election. Debates have a reputation of influencing the outcome of Republican presidential contests in this state, as Mr. Dole is intimately aware.
Mr. Dole's loss in the 1988 primary here, which knocked him out of the lead in the nomination race, was blamed in part on his refusal to sign a no-new-taxes pledge during a TV forum just two days before the election.