Several candidates trained their guns on Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who has surged to the front of the pack in recent Iowa polls, but Gephardt put up a strong defense on challenges to his voting record and proposed trade policies.
There was less of the electricity and verbal fisticuffs that marked several debates last weekend, and no apparent opening developed for any of the candidates to break out of the pack.
The debate was sponsored by the South Dakota Democratic Party. It was televised only on local stations and reached only a small number of Iowa voters in the northwest corner of the state.
Illinois Sen. Paul Simon praised former President Jimmy Carter, whose achievements are rarely cited by Democratic presidential aspirants.
Human Rights Gains
"People snickered when Jimmy Carter first talked about human rights," Simon said. "In all of South America today, there are only three dictatorships left. Much of the credit for that goes to Jimmy Carter."
Simon stepped up his attacks on Gephardt's voting record in Congress, noting their differences on a series of bills. "What is the philosophical base of your voting record?" he demanded.
"I believe in solving problems," Gephardt replied in a steady voice. Listing additional differences with Simon, he said: "I don't question your motives, and I don't think you question mine."
He added: "I don't think any of us here are philosophers. I think we're pragmatic people trying to solve the problems of this country."
Simon presented animated arguments, in marked contrast to his lackluster performance in recent debates. He has fallen sharply in recent Iowa polls and is now ranked third in most of the recent ones.
A Line for Hart
But when Simon said, "We need an Administration that really has a heart," former Sen. Gary Hart jumped in with a grin. "I'll vote for that," he said to laughter in the Holiday Inn conference hall.
Hart's reborn campaign has found little support in Iowa, and he used the debate to argue that Democrats need to explain how they will pay for their social programs if they expect to win in November.
"They don't think we know how to do it," Hart said. "We can be for children, we can be compassionate. Unless we start winning elections, it won't do us any good."
Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt called for extending Medicaid protection to "every kid in this country. If they don't deserve it, who does?"
And Babbitt ridiculed Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. for "folding his tents" and quitting the Iowa caucuses after seeing poor poll results. "What does that say about leadership and persistence?" he asked.
Gore said he was in South Dakota to appeal to voters for this state's Feb. 23 primary. Other states suffered, he said, because of "distortions in the Iowa caucuses."
"I think Democrats all over the country want to see a process that is fair and open and not distorted," he said.
In a planned ploy, Gore sought to distinguish himself from his rivals by asking them whether they believed the U.S. deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe had helped to bring about the treaty to dismantle them that all the Democratic candidates support.
After the others said the Soviets would have agreed to the treaty anyway, Gore used his next turn to say he found that "difficult to believe."
"If we had just stopped the deployment and said to them, 'You're feeling some economic pressure, aren't you, how about removing those SS-20s?' we'd have been kidding ourselves," Gore said.
Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis repeatedly cited his experience running a state as opposed to serving in a legislature.
"While these guys have been bouncing around on votes (in Congress), I've been running a government," he said.
Calls for Detailed Budgets
Both Hart and Babbitt renewed their calls for the other candidates to submit detailed budgets showing how they would pay for the programs they advocate.
"How about some numbers for our future?" Babbitt said, renewing a theme he has made central in every recent debate. "Without that we're just window shopping."
"I'm going to keep after them because we don't have a real economic debate going," Babbitt said after the debate. But with little more than a week remaining before the Iowa caucuses, his aides acknowledged that he had little serious hope that other candidates would respond.
The seventh candidate, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, did not attend because his aides said he had returned home to Chicago, suffering from exhaustion, for a few days' rest.