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Bush, Bradley change tactics and wait

Gov. George W. Bush of Texas started out thinking that New Hampshire is just another primary state. He's been scared straight on that score by polls that showed a matching indifference to him. Former senator Bill Bradley started out to conduct a gentleman's campaign against Vice President Gore, but now, late in the day, he has reached for the brass knuckles.

The two transformed contenders were on view at the last debate before Tuesday's first primary. Republican and Democratic encounters were staged back-to-back on Manchester's WMUR-TV, offering the state's undecided voters, who are still swinging and swaying, a final chance to make up their minds.

The chastened Bush has dropped the swagger, dropped the smirk, even restored the "g" to some verbs. He has learned to show up and stay. Last fall, he skipped the first debate, and when he came for the second, he did his answers once-over lightly, reciting from his own commercials, relating all things to Texas.

But since he found out that the Granite State is a jealous god and wants no other god before it, he talks less about other places. When he returned here after his victory in the plains, he scarcely mentioned Iowa _ there was none of the "big mo" babble of George the Elder in 1980. At a meeting in Bedford the night he arrived, he spoke humbly of home, his longing for the daily rituals and the company of his daughters, his dog and his cat.

His unexpectedly strong rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, was at a disadvantage when they met for the primary's last Republican debate. He was followed to the studio by an unfortunate episode on his Straight Talk Express campaign bus. There was an unseemly exchange on abortion that centered on his 15-year-old daughter. If she became pregnant, McCain was asked by a Boston Globe reporter, would he forbid her to have an abortion? McCain could have declined to answer. But that is not his way. He replied that he and his wife would talk it over with their daughter.

On stage, Alan Keyes, fresh from what he insists was a dignified dive into an Iowa mosh pit and Old Testament wrath at the ready, was waiting for him. Eyes flashing, he challenged McCain: "if your daughter came to you and said she was contemplating killing her grandmother you wouldn't just say let's have a family conference. You would just say no."

McCain responded huffily that he had a pro-life voting record in the Senate. Whatever mortification he inflicted on his teenage daughter, some politicos say, McCain may have helped himself by responding with a pro-choice answer in this largely pro-choice state. But he also reignited doubts about his discretion.

McCain has plainly bonded with New Hampshire _ it has turned out standing-room only crowds for him at almost every stop. His fellow insurgent, Bradley, seemed to be doing the same thing. Bradley's campaign chairman, Douglas Berman, says, "Bill's right for here, a Gary Cooper type, quiet and strong." But after a strong showing against Gore in their first debate in October, Bradley seemed to stall. Gore went on the attack about Bradley's ambitious health care plan. His philosophy and relentlessness seemed to stun Bradley. For almost three months, he remained silent while Gore pounded on him.

After a long internal debate and much anguish about laying aside the mantle of Adlai Stevenson, the civilized idol of an earlier generation, Bradley decided to shove back. He accused Gore of lying about him. He compared Gore to Richard Nixon. He reproached him: "In politics, sometimes people make misleading statements because they don't know any better. You know better."

Gore is a seasoned slugger. He is crushingly condescending. He pounces; he snatches words from his opponent and hurls them back in his sledgehammer singsong. When Bradley read to him strong criticism from New England editorials, Gore snapped that Bradley was being "negative and nasty." Absurdly, Gore praised himself for a career-long fidelity to campaign-finance reform, Bradley's strongest issue here.

If Bradley has become at last a fighter, he is not yet a street fighter. He forbore mentioning any specifics about the sorry Clinton-Gore 1996 fundraising operation. Debate moderator Judy Woodruff had to mention the notorious Buddhist temple episode. Gore's drive was evident beyond the stage. In the pressroom, his spinners, New Hampshire's Gov. Jeanne Shaheen and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, were pushing his cause even before the debate _ a first in pressroom annals. The governor was predicting a low turnout of independents, and the senator was saying that if Bradley loses here, there's no point in his persevering.

George W. Bush has seen the light. Bradley has finally struck back. Were they both too late? New Hampshire will tell us two days from now.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.

Universal Press Syndicate