Washington — The Republican candidates' flare-up over the refusal to open up a Saturday night New Hampshire debate -- staged between George Bush and Ronald Reagan -- was a signal that the GOP nomination struggle is still very "contendable," says Republican Party chairman Bill Brock.
"The support of any candidate remains not fixed or absolute in its commitment ," Mr. Brock adds.
"It's not unexpected," he says of the excluded candidates' anger at what they saw as Mr. Bush's desire to keep the Nashua, N.H., event a two-man affair. "You can't have six months of campaigning with this intensity without flare-ups. It'll likely settle back to reasonable proportions."
Behind the flare-up, too, is the frustration of Mr. Bush's fellow challengers over their inability to match what they see as undue attention to the Bush surge by pollsters and the media.
On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, Mr. Bush's rivals had taken off the gloves. A campaign spokesman for Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. said the debate incident reflected "on Bush as an individual -- his way of acting, his handling of a crisis." Rep. John B. Anderson stepped up his attack on Mr. Bush as "a reactionary conservative masquerading as a moderate."
This tough talk did not surprise the Bush camp, said Bush strategist James Baker. "You have to expect it if your nose is a little out in front," he explains. "We got teamed up on in New Hampshire Saturday," he added. "The Nashua Telegraph made it very clear we never said we would not go with a full-open debate.
"In retrospect," however, Mr. Baker conceded it would have been "wiser" to have met with all the other candidates to make Mr. Bush's position clear. He says the Reagan camp kept the Bush people in the dark about the Reagan invitation to Mr. Anderson, Mr. Baker, Rep. Philip M. Crane, John B. Connally, and Sen. Robert Dole -- four of whom showed up. "We learned about it from the press," he said.
About the charge that Mr. Bush is courting moderate voters deceptively, James Baker replies: "We have assiduously avoided labels all along. Terms like conservative and moderate mean different things to different people in different states. This permits us to appeal to a broader spectrum of GOP voters. It's fair to say George Bush is clearly to the right of John Anderson and to the left of Ronald Reagan. He's right in the middle."
Mr. Anderson has accused Mr. Bush of harboring "a confrontation, cold-war mentality," citing his opposition to "SALT II, the Panama Canal Treaty, the nuclear test ban treaty and the Civil Rights Act of 1964" as policy positions "that could not be construed as moderate."
Senator Baker's campaign vice-chairman John Michaels complains, "The problem is attention to Bush. Once he got out as the front-runner, the rest of us have been shut out. The media just doesn't cover us. The TV crews follow us, but their footage just doesn't get on the air.
"Bush has been all things to all people. "Now he's disappeared. He's been staying away from New Hampshire the past week."
However, more objective followers of media coverage say Mr. Bush has been getting his share of negative as well as positive treatment since he became front-runner Jan. 21 after the Iowa caucuses. On Sunday night alone, Mr. Bush was doused with "at least 20 minutes of negative coverage on the three networks" over the debate incident, says Michael Robinson, George Washington University political scientist who measures media coverage of politics.