With two weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses and the Democratic race still up for grabs, front-runners Paul Simon and Richard A. Gephardt used two candidate forums Saturday to escalate an increasingly bitter cross-state sniping match.
The testiness between the two men, which began early last week when polls showed Gephardt rising and Simon slipping in the state, has added a sharper edge to what had been a generally collegial Democratic campaign in Iowa.
At both a women's forum in Des Moines on Saturday morning and an agriculture debate here in the afternoon, Simon, an Illinois senator, used his opening remarks to try to spear his rising rival. Gephardt, a Missouri congressman, was prepared for the attacks, and responded by releasing an eight-page packet aimed at refuting Simon's charges.
At the Des Moines forum, sponsored by several national women's groups, Simon tried to show that Gephardt failed women on important issues, particularly the equal rights amendment. Following his rival on stage, Simon told the 1,000 women in the audience: "The candidate who just preceded me voted against ERA extension; I voted for it.
"He voted against federal funding for domestic centers for (victims of) violence," Simon continued. "I voted for it. . . . the candidate who preceded me was for the Reagan tax bill of 1981. I voted against that bill that helped feminize poverty in this country."
Later at the farm debate, which was televised statewide, Simon blasted Gephardt's support for the unpopular 1980 grain embargo on the Soviet Union, which Simon opposed.
"I voted against the grain embargo in 1980--my friend Dick Gephardt voted for it," Simon said. "The 1985 farm bill, I voted . . . against that bill for lowering prices for farm commodities. Dick voted for it. There is going to be no grain embargo in a Simon Administration. I've been there fighting for farmers and rural economy not just in election years, I've been there year after year after year."
After the debate, both candidates continued their bickering in separate meetings with reporters.
Simon, for instance, said Gephardt never showed much interest in agricultural issues before the campaign, and is merely pandering to Iowa farmers now by pushing legislation that would impose tough production limits on grain.
"The reality here is I have been fighting for farmers and rural Americans consistently," Simon said. "The record in Dick's case is of recent interest . . . and I welcome that recent interest. I hope it is not just election-year interest."
But Gephardt countered that he had been much more productive in passing farm legislation through Congress than had Simon.
"Not only is he wrong that (my interest) is recent, but I also think my involvement has been effective," Gephardt said.
Gephardt added that he's "happy to debate the issues. I would be disappointed if it got into a personal contest or a questioning of motives. But as long as it's on issues, I welcome it. I think that's what elections are about. People need to know what you are for and what you are going to do as President."
At the women's forum, the candidates showed up with their wives and daughters and boasted about the number of women they had appointed to state offices and campaign posts.
Former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, whose celebrated liaison with Miami model Donna Rice cost him the support of many feminists, declined to participate in the forum. A Hart volunteer said the candidate had a "scheduling conflict." Hart managed, however, to attend the nearby farm debate a few hours later.
The Republican candidates declined to participate in either forum, and Democrat Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, who is virtually ignoring the Iowa race to campaign in the South, was also a no-show at both events.
Lessons From Wife
Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt told the women's gathering that his wife, Hattie, taught him about women's equality. He said she pursued a successful career as an attorney while rearing two children with him.
"I want you to understand that my views on these issues, I didn't arrive by recently," Babbitt said. "I didn't formulate them for a political campaign. I learned them in the crucible of a relationship of absolute equality and sharing and commitment."
Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, the candidate with the best flair for the dramatic, seemed to get the warmest reception from both the women and the farmers. When his turn came to take the stage at the women's forum, he lunged instead into the audience to shake hands with the women. Two Secret Service agents, apparently surprised by his boldness, had to scramble to keep up with him.
At the farm debate, Jackson held up a box of Wheaties to dramatize how little farmers get from the prices consumers pay at the grocery store. He received wild applause.
Hart and Babbitt both attacked Gephardt at the farm debate for his support of mandatory agricultural production controls, calling his policies protectionist gambles that would harm U.S. products. Gephardt, however, is a favorite of many Iowa farm activists, and Babbitt was roundly booed when he took on Gephardt's farm policy.
Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis generally stayed outside the fray over agricultural policy, but said the campaigning for Iowa's precinct caucuses has taught him about farm problems.
"I've asked a lot of questions," Dukakis said. "I've learned a lot. We're all in this together."
James Risen reported from Ames and Maura Dolan from Des Moines.