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GOP Opposition Target Bush As Campaign Moves to N.H.

By Anne-Marie O’Connor, Mark Z. Barabak and Cathleen Decker

His Iowa caucus victory only hours old, Texas Gov. George W. Bush fell into an ideological pincers attack from his two chief challengers in New Hampshire Tuesday, taking shots on taxes and abortion as he sought to translate his Midwestern success into an advantage among the traditionally prickly voters here.

Businessman Steve Forbes thrashed Bush from the right on taxes and Arizona Sen. John McCain came at him from his more moderately conservative perch on abortion, both trying to knock down the national front-runner .

Forbes’ approach marked a shift from the final days of the Iowa campaign, when he hammered Bush on abortion -- but it was a clear reflection of Forbes’ take on the more secular interests of voters here. Indeed, he and McCain appeared at times to have traded places, with McCain shifting to abortion from his usual criticism of Bush’s tax plan.

Bush, anxious to quash both challengers, touted his tax plan and said he would continue to press the case in Wednesday night’s GOP debate. The Democrats, too, were scheduled to debate Wednesday.

Running behind McCain in pre-primary polling here, Bush insisted he was ready for the fight in New Hampshire. But he also none-too-subtly underscored his strong positioning for the remainder of the primary season, where he holds a vast organizational and financial edge.

“Up to now, Sen. McCain has had a time advantage in New Hampshire,” Bush said. “Now we’re all going to be here the same amount of days. ... There’s no doubt about it, he’s a tough candidate to beat. We’ll see beyond New Hampshire what they choose to do.”

The Democratic winner of the caucuses, Vice President Al Gore, buoyantly pledged not to take victory in New Hampshire for granted, but just for good measure criticized both his primary opponent Bill Bradley and his probable Republican opponent Bush’s “huge, risky, tax scheme-giveaway.”

Bradley, for his part, tried to shake off his lopsided Iowa loss -- he was defeated by a nearly 2-1 margin -- by emphasizing his credentials as a former New Jersey senator and pledging reform, both of health care insurance and the frequently negative political system. Nonetheless, he sent surrogates out to criticize Gore, and began airing a television advertisement in which the widow of the last Democratic insurgent to win New Hampshire -- the late Paul Tsongas -- bashed Gore for misrepresenting Bradley’s record.

The surviving candidates, including the major challengers and Republican Gary Bauer, who placed a disappointing fourth in the Iowa caucuses, high-tailed to New Hampshire in the early morning hours Tuesday, exhausted but girding for a battle that began at dawn with public appearances and interviews on morning news shows.

But the traditional convergence of the political world on this tiny spit of land was overshadowed by a mammoth blizzard that dumped snow from the southern edge of the Eastern Seaboard up to Maine, closing a host of airports intermittently, including the Manchester and Boston airports into which the political world was flying.

One candidate, Republican Alan Keyes, fell victim to the weather and found himself stuck in the Detroit airport through the afternoon. The sixth Republican, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, was not in New Hampshire and The Associated Press reported that he was leaving the race.

The Republican underdogs were fighting most fiercely Tuesday. Forbes’ return to taxes as his bulwark issue was a replay of his 1996 presidential campaign, which he based almost completely on eradicating the Internal Revenue Service and replacing it with a 17 percent flat tax on income.

“People are going to look at the record on taxes,” Forbes told reporters in Nashua. “George Bush: look at his record. In Texas, he broke the tax pledge.”

While Forbes was moving on Bush from the right, McCain was inching at him from the center with a nuanced discussion of abortion. Both Bush and McCain oppose abortion, except in instances of rape, incest, or threat to the life of the mother.

But while Bush has said he is satisfied with the Republican platform that advocates a strict, no-exceptions ban on abortion, McCain on Tuesday said that he favored loosening the platform language.

“I’m for the exemption; that’s my position,” McCain said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” program. But he later said that he would not actively seek a platform change.

Gore rallied supporters at West High School in Manchester, promising to spend every waking moment he could in the state before Tuesday’s primary.