Throughout the night Sunday, the four Republican candidates who did attend - Arizona Sen. John McCain, magazine publisher Steve Forbes, former diplomat Alan Keyes and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch - took turns trying to distinguish themselves from the front-running Texas governor. They also encouraged Bush to debate.
While Bush has skipped three debates, he is scheduled to participate in a Dec. 2 event in New Hampshire with all the leading candidates. A second Arizona debate is to be held Dec. 6, but McCain does not plan to be there.
Forbes said voters deserve to see and compare all of the candidates side-by-side.
"We're here answering questions," Forbes said. "He was absent."
Keyes said he didn't mind Bush's absence.
"This election isn't about talking to G.W. Bush. He isn't talking to anybody else," he said. "I want to talk to you not to him."
Mike Hull, the Bush campaign's executive director for Arizona, said Bush would participate in three debates during the first half of December, including one in Arizona Dec. 6.
"Tonight, he is in Bryan, Texas, attending a memorial service for the 12 students tragically killed in an accident at Texas A&M University this week. The comments made by other candidates disparaging Gov. Bush's absence tonight were out of line and uncalled for," Hull said.
When they weren't talking about Bush, the candidates did outline some of their goals should they win the White House.
McCain told a home state crowd that he would protect Social Security by separating it from the overall federal budget and allowing people to invest some of their Social Security deductions in personal accounts. "You've got to keep Congress' hands off of it."
Forbes said Bush's approach to government places to much emphasis on federal programs while he would like to reduce the role of government in education, taxes and other areas. "He believes in the bureaucrats," he said. "I believe in the people."
Keyes focused much of his attention on uplifting America's morality. "Our biggest crisis right now is our moral crisis," he said. "We need to live up to our vocations as citizens."
Hatch said that one of his priorities would be to "abolish the Internal Revenue Service and end its tyrannical reign."
It was also an opportunity for the Republicans to criticize the policies of President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, who is seeking the Democratic nomination against former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley.
Each of the candidates Sunday night took turns attacking the Clinton administration's foreign policy, suggesting the president has involved America in too many conflicts where it does not have a vested interest.
©1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed