HANOVER, N.H. -- The five Republican rivals nipping at the heels of front-running George W. Bush attacked the absent Texas governor at a nationally televised candidate forum last night in the leadoff primary state.
With Bush deciding to skip the "town meeting," the remaining candidates answered questions from New Hampshire voters on issues ranging from health care and the flat tax to gay rights and abortion.
Bush's absence, which almost certainly reduced viewership for the event as well as its importance, rankled his opponents -- and at least one of the audience members, who said she had hoped to ask him about the influence of big money in his campaign.
Instead, her question went to Steve Forbes, the only candidate who is financing his campaign largely out of his own pocket. Trailing far back in the pack, the wealthy publisher jumped at the opportunity to bash Bush.
"Like you, I share the frustration that Governor Bush is not here tonight," Forbes said. "He didn't come to a debate last week because he had a fund-raiser. A couple of weeks ago, his plane got delayed. He got a choice between a fund-raiser or going to a school in Rhode Island with underprivileged kids. He chose the fund-raiser.
"Perhaps in the future with a forum like this, if we call it a fund-raiser he might show up."
Another candidate, conservative activist Gary L. Bauer, described Bush's decision to remain home in Texas as an affront to civic virtue.
"How are we going to deal with the lack of voter participation if we have a lack of candidate participation?" Bauer told reporters afterward.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has moved into second place in the Republican contest, said it would be up to the voters to decide whether Bush's absence was a snub to New Hampshire. McCain said he felt sure that Bush would be spending plenty of time here, "particularly now that we're moving up so rapidly in the polls."
Recently, McCain has closed to within 18 points of Bush in a statewide poll. In August, the gap was 34 points in the same survey. McCain's rise made the Arizona senator a focus of attention at last night's faceoff before an audience of about 300 at Dartmouth College.
Treading carefully on abortion, an issue that has tripped him up in the past, McCain described himself as "a proud pro-life person" but said the Republican Party's staunchly anti-abortion rights position has sent "a message that we are not an inclusive party."
McCain said Republicans should "send the word" to voters who support abortion rights that "we want you in our party. We can have respectful disagreement on the issue, and we can work together on" it.
Also taking part in the debate were talk show host Alan Keyes, who is attracting support from about 5 percent of New Hampshire voters, and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who has yet to register in voter surveys.
The hourlong program, aired nationally by CNN, was the second multicandidate forum for the Republicans.
The first was held Friday in New Hampshire and was also skipped by Bush, who, as favored candidates often do, is trying to limit his participation in events that would potentially boost his opponents by putting them on an equal footing with him.
Last night's debate came one night after a similar TV forum featuring former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Vice President Al Gore. The Democratic contenders drew an audience of 1.4 million households nationwide, according to CNN.
Bush was in Texas last night for an alumni event at Southern Methodist University honoring his wife, Laura.
In a TV interview from Dallas with WMUR, the New Hampshire station that co-sponsored the forum, Bush said his decision to skip the debate was motivated by family considerations.
"It's a more important night in Dallas as far as my family is concerned," the governor said, his wife at his side. "I hope the people understand that I love my wife and I want to honor Laura."
With his lead in the polls starting to slip, as his aides knew it would, Bush said: "I take nothing for granted. I know that the people of New Hampshire know I take nothing for granted." He noted that he would be back in the state for two days next week, his sixth visit since hitting the road in June.
Bush has agreed to a Dec. 2 debate in New Hampshire, his first joint appearance with his rivals.
Steve Duprey, the New Hampshire Republican Party chairman, said he wished Bush had participated last night. But the governor's failure to show up for an Oct. 28 event wouldn't hurt him with voters in the Feb. 2 primary, Duprey said.
"Sure, it's more of an issue than Bush would like it to be," said Duprey, who is neutral in the presidential contest. "But it goes away in a day" once he starts debating.