Manchester, NH (CNSNews.com) - This post-Thanksgiving week could be one of the most important in George W Bush's quest for his party's presidential nomination: On Thursday, December 2nd, Bush will face a major test as the GOP front-runner, when he and five other Republican presidential hopefuls face off in a debate.
The hour-long session will mark the first time the six GOP candidates have appeared on the same stage in this first-in-the-nation primary state.
However, it is not the first face-off to which Bush and the others -- Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), former Reagan domestic policy advisor Gary Bauer, radio host Alan Keyes and publisher Steve Forbes -- have been invited. Bush managed to skip the previous Granite State get-togethers, much to the annoyance of some of his GOP rivals.
The Texas governor was the only no-show at a GOP debate in Arizona last week. And his decision to pass on the recent nationally televised "town meeting" in New Hampshire may have cost Bush among New Hampshire voters: According to recent polls, Bush has seen his lead slip from a summer high of 60 percent in the Granite State to 37 percent -- a statistical dead heat with McCain.
Most political observers still agree that the primary is still Bush's to win or loose, and they say a big-time gaffe Thursday night could spell the beginning of the end. Several Bush supporters openly admit to the importance of Thursday's "debate," which is actually more of a traditional New England town meeting, where ordinary citizens get the chance to question the candidates.
What makes the event especially critical is the perception - bolstered by the candidate's recent highly publicized gaffes - that Bush may be weak on foreign and domestic policy issues. Those gaffes include a "pop quiz" of sorts, in which a Boston television reporter asked Bush to name four leaders of four of the world's hot spots - and he could name only one.
Later, many pundits and seasoned journalists admitted they couldn't have named all four leaders, either - although Vice President Al Gore was quick to say that yes, he could have.
"He needs to be ready and, if nothing else, not embarrass himself," said a well-known New Hampshire Bush supporter, who told CNSNews.com he wished to remain anonymous. "He has to show New Hampshire voters he takes them seriously and has something to offer. If he can't do that, or repeats platitudes, he could find himself in trouble."
The Bush supporter continued, "He also needs to watch out for guys who have nothing to loose, like Gary Bauer, who can, if he so chooses, be a thorn in his side. You also can't forget Steve Forbes. One of these guys will likely go after Bush and he better know it."
This supporter insisted that McCain presents a very real threat to Bush, given his ability to narrow the gap to a statistical dead heat. "John McCain is hot here. If he wins, or evens looses to Bush by a few points, he could declare himself the winner like Clinton did, when he lost the state to Paul Tsongas, in the 1992 primary."
"Don't think for a moment McCain won't hesitate to take even a close loss to Bush into the next event in South Carolina, by giving it a positive spin. If Bush either fails to win here or barely wins here, McCain could find himself with incredible support in the next place."
"You can't ever make any assumptions about how people here will vote," he warned. "The intra-party stakes are just incredible."
The general election stakes are also high. According to a recent CBS News Poll, the gap between Bush and Gore has plummeted from 17 points in September, to nine points this month.
"Bush also needs to reassure voters across the nation that he can lead," said the Bush supporter. "You can bet Independents and Democrats will be watching," said the supporter. "People are already questioning that in New Hampshire, and it won't be long before others across the country may also begin to raise questions, especially if he doesn't do well Thursday night," he said.