First New Hampshire "Presidential Debate" Fizzles

By Jerry Miller | July 7, 2008 | 8:24 PM EDT

Derry, NH ( - When is a Republican presidential debate not a debate? When only two of the candidates show up.

That is exactly what happened Thursday night, when only Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes participated in a so-called "town meeting" at the studios of WNDS-TV, while Texas Governor George W Bush, Arizona Senator John McCain and Publisher Steve Forbes, each campaigning in the state, chose to ignore what organizers had hoped would be the first face to face showdown between the remaining GOP hopefuls.

Utah Senator Orrin Hatch made a brief appearance via satellite, from Washington, where he insisted he was attending to the nation's business.

The non-appearances by the others appeared to leave WNDS-TV News Director Jack Heath annoyed. "It makes you wonder whether the candidates with the money and higher poll numbers really wanted to debate," he told viewers.

In the end, Bauer and Keyes were given 20 minutes, of the 60-minute program, to take questions from a studio audience.

The remainder of the time was spent with out-going Reform Party Chairman Russell Varney, who attended the town meeting, criticizing Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, for comments the former TV wrestler made in a Playboy Magazine interview and insisting he would support Patrick J. Buchanan, if the conservative columnist won the party's presidential nod.

Varney was joined by Morrie Taylor, a wealthy Iowa businessman, who was last seen in New Hampshire in 1992, making a stab for the presidential nomination.

Appearing alone, Keyes and Bauer wasted little time attacking the others for failing to appear.

"It's sad he didn't show up," Bauer said of Bush. "The front runners in the party are trying to rely on their bank will back fire if they continue running away."

"Their absence is a reflection of their contempt for the democratic process," Keyes said. "That contempt should be answered clearly by the voters."

Asked by a member of the audience if Bush and the party hierarchy had "rigged" the primary system, to favor the Texan, Bauer responded, "If money was all that mattered, we'd be finishing up Ross Perot's second term."

Keyes told the questioner that at least in Iowa and New Hampshire, "grass roots campaigning makes all the difference."

Responding to additional questions, Bauer and Keyes also repeated now familiar themes on other issues, including gun control

Bauer said the real issue is not guns but a breakdown of the family and a culture, which includes the glorification of violence on television. "It's not a gun problem. It's a problem of the human heart."

Keyes insisted gun control measures violate the rights of law-abiding citizens. "We have guns and bombs in our schools, because we've driven God out of our schools."

Asked about the federal role in education, Keyes said he would abolish the Department of Education and added, "Get the federal government out of the way and let people take control of their schools."

Bauer said as Ronald Reagan's under secretary of education, he spent "90 percent of my day saying no," to bureaucrats.